Heather Lende and Harry de Quetteville both tell the stories of the recently departed. As obituary writers, their work captures both the grand and intimate details of a subject’s life. In many ways the obituary can feel like a vestige of another time when newspapers were booming and Walter Cronkite was sponsored by Winston cigarettes. Yet the modern obituary provides a portrait of life, from the high profile to the ordinary.
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Heather Lende has been an obituary writer for nearly two decades at the Chilkat Valley News, a weekly paper in Haines, Alaska. She describes Haines, a remote community only accessible by boat or plane, as “a lot like a foreign country.” In the small community, devoid of an undertaker or mortuary, rituals of death are a community affair.
“The reason I write obituaries really,” she said, “is because everybody helps with those death rituals. Whether it’s making casseroles, or playing the music, or typing up the funeral program. As a writer, I realized that I could do the obituaries.” In those 20 years, she’s written over 400 obituaries, yet unlike most writers, Lende says she knew each of them personally.
The question she’s most often asked — what makes a good life? — is something Lende thinks about a lot.
“I think if I had to say one word, it really comes down to relationships. All of it. When we go, do we leave people behind who will miss us? … if people weren’t really sad when you left, it seemed like you’ve missed an opportunity in your life. And now I think about that a lot in how I live. I think am I generous, am I kind, am I grateful? Those are the things that make a good life.”
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“It’s never depressing, far from it! It’s fascinating and hugely uplifting,” says Harry de Quetteville. He’s served as the obituaries editor for The Telegraph, a paper famous for, as he puts it, “obits of eccentric figures.”
Decades ago in British newspapers, obituaries writers often used a code to describe the behavior of their subjects.
“You would say someone was a bon vivant if they were an alcoholic drunk, you would say they enjoyed the company of women if they were basically assaulting everyone they saw … you might say someone was a confirmed bachelor if they were gay, and those days have rather passed now.”
Link to the rest at PRI and thanks to J.A. for the tip.