How To Write the Perfect Obituary
S1: Welcome to How to. I’m David Epstein. A while back, I came across an unusually wonderful piece of writing. It started like this. Margaret Marilinda atter professional Kliper of Coupon’s Baker of Cookies, Terror behind the wheel champion of the underdog, ruthless cardplayer and self-described queen bitch died on Tuesday, January 19th. Twenty twenty one. That’s the first sentence of an obituary for a woman in Nova Scotia. The memorial goes on to tell the story of Marilyn’s life with humor and with love. Just a few paragraphs later, I felt like I knew Marilyn. I learned she burned teapots. So often is to leave the impression that fanning the smoke alarm was a step in brewing tea. I then learned that Marilyn is survived by three ungrateful sons whose jokes she didn’t completely understand. And finally, in lieu of flowers, the family asked that you do something nice for somebody else, unexpectedly and without explanation. That unique remembrance was written by one of Marilyn’s sons, Michael de Adder. It’s a wonderful example of something to many of us have had to do this year, sum up the life of a lost loved one in just a few words.
S2: I have this kind of mentality said of it needs to be perfect. But the thing is, is how do I capture, gosh, 30 plus years of his life into just a couple of paragraphs?
S1: This is Laura. She’s 24 years old, from a very small town outside San Antonio. Laura works as an operator for an ambulance company, so she’s had a front row seat to the impact of covid on her community. And late last year, the virus found her father.
S2: He was actually diagnosed with a very rare and highly aggressive cancer back three years ago. The doctors told us that he only had about two weeks to live, and that was by the grace of God. He gave us three more years. My dad fought harder than he first cut covid, but he he came on the other side. But it was the repercussion of his weak immune system that he caught other illnesses, which is what what took his life.
S1: I’m sorry to hear that about your father. This was very this how recently
S2: January twenty eighth is when he passed away.
S1: OK, so, so very, very recent. I was wondering if you can talk to us a little bit about why in particular, writing down a remembrance for your father, your father’s story feels important to you.
S2: This all happened very suddenly for us. So my family didn’t have the financial resources to have a funeral home direct the funeral. We had to do everything ourselves. And right now we’re still even struggling to write the obituary because I have a very large family.
S1: Luras not kidding. She’s one of 12 children. That’s right, 12. But the task of remembering her dad fell to Laura.
S2: You know, I am definitely the writer in the family. I’m definitely different from everybody else. I am a flat extrovert. They’re all introverts. And posting on Facebook gives them anxiety.
S1: Laura wants to post a remembrance on social media, maybe write something longer to share with relatives. And even though she usually loves to tell stories and as you’ll hear, her family has a heck of a story, she’s not sure where to start.
S2: My family wasn’t always the happy, smiling. Everything’s peachy clean and perfect. There’s 14 different personalities in the same household. So there’s going to be differences. So how do you capture. The real dad, while keeping it genuine and how do we portray someone justly,
S1: it feels impossible to capture a loved one in just a few hundred words of newsprint or a Facebook post, but not telling their stories feels equally impossible. On today’s episode, How to Keep Those We’ve Lost Alive. On the page, we’ll talk to Glenn Rifkin, a seasoned obituary writer at The New York Times who spent the last year memorializing Americans who died during the pandemic.
S3: It’s a way to really put faces to these somewhat anonymous numbers, which the bigger they got, the more difficult it was to get your head around it. But as Laura can tell us, these are real people. These were people who sat at your dinner table. These were people you loved. These were people you cared about. I’m really sorry for your loss, by the way.
S2: Thank you.
S3: And so it’s a it’s a different kind of obituary, but I think one that’s very important.
S1: We’ll be right back. When Glenn Rifkin was first assigned to the death beat, he wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
S3: There was a time and it wasn’t all that long ago when if you were put on the obituary desk, that was Siberia, that was basically saying you’re the lowest rung on the totem pole and you may even be on your way out, huh? Lo and behold, over the last 10 or 15 years, that has changed. Obituaries are one of the most popular sections of the paper for people to read. Carl Reiner famously said just before he died. Recently, I opened The New York Times. Every morning I look at the obituaries. If I’m not in it, I have breakfast. So. So what’s happened is writing obituaries has become more of an art form.
S1: Glenn started off as a business journalist and he’s written several books on the topic, but he’s been writing obituaries for The New York Times for over a decade now. Many of them are so-called advance obits.
S3: It’s a kind of a strange practice where you identify notable people who are getting on in their lives and you write the obituary ahead of time before they pass. And the concept is simple. You’re going to have a chance to do the research. You’re going to have a chance to talk to a lot of different people. And so when the person does die, you find out the date where they were the exact cause of death, but most of the rest of it is done.
S1: But then the pandemic hit and things changed.
S3: What I found myself doing this past year is that The New York Times, to honor so many who died, the paper decided to create a new feature called Those We’ve Lost. And the idea was to identify ordinary folks who were just living their lives and suddenly, you know, came across, came upon covid and ended up dying.
S1: And these obituaries, they’re not just a way of recording who died and who they’re survived by. They’re also an effort to tell someone’s story.
S3: Here’s one that I think could indicate what kind of creativity you could bring to a lead. This is a fellow named Thomas for Virgilio, who had an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn for decades, and he died from covid at age 77. And I start with, oh, wow. Tomaso at first seemed like a classic red sauce restaurant when it opened in nineteen seventy one in South Brooklyn, but it quickly became a critically admired dining spot frequented by foodies, neighborhood people, Manhattanites and mobsters alike. Almost as much of a draw was the warmth of its owner, Thomas Fadela, who loved opera and over the decades like to serenade his customers with Arias. Now, this is a guy who had, unbelievably, some of the most famous mobsters in New York coming to his restaurant regularly. So you can only imagine how colorful a character this guy was
S2: to have such a wide range.
S3: Yeah, yeah. It’s just there’s so many layers to the story
S1: because that’s interesting. And so you didn’t use his name in the first paragraph in this one? That’s right. You set up something about him, you know, that was intriguing.
S3: Exactly. Every life has a story and every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. And I think they the best of obituaries find ways to not only tell that story effectively, but to tell that story in an exciting, readable manner that draws the reader in. So I think, you know, the starting point is to say, what was my father’s story and how can I tell it best?
S1: Here’s our first tip when writing an obituary, you can fall back on the structure you’ve seen before, but once you’ve got the biographical details on the page, let yourself tell a story crafting a narrative as unique as the person you’re writing about.
S3: You can either follow a timeline or you’re free again to really explore how best to tell a story. And I think when you describe, you know, who he was, what his personality was like, what kind of father he was, all of these things are obviously crucial to his story. And I think you’re the writer. But these other 11 siblings and maybe your mom, I’m sure they all have some strong feelings about your dad and you could grab a few sentences from each of them. So they’re honoring your dad to
S2: you know, that is that is a really good idea.
S3: Yeah. If you keep them relatively brief, you know, what’s their favorite story of your dad that they want to share?
S1: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with him.
S2: So my dad and myself have different love languages because his love language was acts of service and my love language was words of affirmation. My dad was not good at giving words of affirmation. He was he proved his love by working. We have pretty much the same personality, yet we’re very different. And my dad didn’t know how to deal with teenage girl drama. We really didn’t have a good, strong relationship of understanding each other up until the last couple of years. He taught me my love for photography. He taught me how to have an amazing work ethic. So that was really amazing to be able to learn to have conversations with him and actually realize, OK, so you’re coming from this point of view. I can understand that now. So we were really able to build a strong relationship.
S1: That’s interesting. I mean, so it sounds like a wonderful relationship, but also that there was there was work that had to be done, that you’re not only seeing things through rose colored glasses, you know, people have probably read more remembrances than any other time in history because we see them on social media. Right. And most of them are like platitudes. You know, they were always smiling, which may be true, but but doesn’t necessarily capture a human life.
S3: You know, you have to make choices. What goes in, what doesn’t go in. How do you further the story, how do you move the narrative along in a more interesting, readable way,
S2: capturing their attention within the first exactly seven space?
S3: And so letting people know who this guy was, who was this man that you called your father? You can get into some of the personal stuff. But I think early on in the piece, you want to give people a reason to want to know more about him.
S2: That is really helpful.
S1: Here’s our next tip. Don’t worry about fitting everything into the piece. You can still write an honest remembrance of someone without getting into all the twists and turns of a complicated life. This is, after all, just one version of the story you could have told. You want to craft it with the reader in mind as well. What would make them keep reading about your loved one? Glenn, I’m looking at what was either one of your recent or maybe your most recent pieces from those we’ve lost and and it starts at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. Lourdes Rivera was more than the high school receptionist. And I think that’s a that’s a great opening line because it could be at the school or Rivera was the high school receptionist. Right. But it’s more than that. Sets up this. OK, we’re going through a journey here, right? This was her job. But I’m going to tell you about a person. And just that subtle was more than seems to me, you know, something that
S2: stirs up a lot of emotion and a desire to know the person more. Right.
S3: Those pieces are shorter than even the regular obituaries of the Times. Those pieces are about six or seven hundred words. So think about that. I have to encapsulate a whole life in that short of a space. It’s going to try to capture the highlights. You know what I’m going to include in their comments from some people who knew this person and you know it. Once you put it together, hopefully it’s like a tapestry of their life.
S1: So what does that tapestry look like for Laura’s dad? We’ll find out after this quick break. We’re back with Laura and our expert, Glenn Rifkin, to get a better sense of Laura’s dad. It helps to know that when Laura was just eight years old, he moved their whole family to a farm in the Texas countryside
S2: and life was different. We weren’t used to the country living, so we had to learn how to Little House on the Prairie. So to say we didn’t have good well water, so we had to bring water in from neighbors. We had these big old 55 gallon drums for water, and that’s how we would wash. We’d wash our laundry with that water. We would over a fire, we would boil our water for baths. We didn’t have a stove and we did this for quite some time.
S3: What jumps out at me as you’re talking is your father was the guy who spearheaded all this, right? I mean, this had to be his idea was along with your mom and. Yeah, and that’s just remarkable. I mean, right there, this is somebody who’s thinking way outside the box. Exactly. And that alone is just so fascinating that, you know, that that’s your lead.
S1: So here’s a place where Laura could start a tribute to her dad with him raising 12 children. Little House on the Prairie style, there’s intrigue. The reader wants to know what happens next and there’s honesty. This epitomised what kind of person Laura’s dad was.
S2: He wanted to make sure that all of his children were self-sufficient, that we did not have to rely on anybody else. So he taught everything from simple mechanics how to use every single tool in the shed to fixing our own tires. Like at one point I was dating someone who I had to teach how to fix, like how to change a blow out on the side of the road. And that was a huge no no for me.
S1: Or maybe that’s the scene that would make a good lead, being able to fix a flat tire while her date was clueless, all because of her dad,
S2: one of his favorite sayings is there is no such thing as I can’t or I can’t is not an acceptable answer. He said, there’s resources. Figure it out. You’re smart. Figure it out. And if you need help, I’m here to help you.
S3: Where did he get that from?
S2: You know, I don’t know if that was from his dad, but I know he had to be very independent from such a young age. And with him being a computer programmer, you can imagine the kind of mindset and how his brain works. So he was very technical, logical.
S1: He was working as a computer programmer. Did he have an office in the city or did you have like a fiber optic but not running water?
S2: That’s that’s what’s kind of interesting, is he worked from home and his website, this is this kind of speaks about his heart. It was after my my mom had almost died after childbirth. And there are so many people within the church and within our friends and our family who wanted to help. But it became overwhelming for my dad, who was not a big communicator of words, to give direction on how someone could benefit my family. So in his way, he created a calendar to where people can go up and sign up for things.
S1: This online sign up sheet eventually became a website called Care Calendar. It helps families organize and coordinate meals and other assistance during a challenging time. It’s big with churches. It’s used all over the world and it’s completely free.
S2: So he created his business, but he never charged a dime.
S1: Wow. And people donated
S2: people out of generosity would donate. So we would find other ways to produce income so that we didn’t have to charge anybody for this site. And my family is really actually very low maintenance. So we would do things like clean houses. We would generate other forms of income. We never went without food. We never went without clothes and shoes. We were very grateful for what we had. That was a learning opportunity for us. Do we need that or do we want that?
S3: Laura was your dad was your dad from a big family as well?
S2: He had four siblings.
S3: OK, so large, but not nothing on the scale of your family. I wonder what correct. When when you talk about writing this, you know, there is a point in the person’s life where these things start to emerge as characteristics. And if I don’t know if he talked about his childhood at all or he was the strong, silent type and he never brought it up. But if he did talk about it, could you share what you think made him into this man, that he became this, you know, obviously a rugged individualist who had, you know, thoughts about the best way to raise a family that really, you know, were at odds with what most of society would accept. Where did that come from?
S2: You know, my dad would talk sometimes about his childhood and his parents were alcoholics, and he he had a rough childhood. And so he he always strived to to not be like his parents were to him when he was young and when he needed them. So he wanted to create a better life for us than what he had.
S1: This is the next part of Laura’s piece. Tell her father’s personal journey, how did he become the person she knew and what was he proud of?
S3: When did he meet your mom?
S2: You know, they grew up together, so they were they were definitely high school sweethearts, OK,
S3: because as amazing as he sounds, your mom sounds almost more amazing having
S2: your mom. And I tell her she’s a Wonder Woman. She’s she’s super mom.
S3: If you’re if you’re taking notes for your obituary, I think that is a very important part of it because, OK, this story is about one very big family. It’s not just about one guy. And I think the other thing you want to start gathering along with thoughts from your siblings is these kinds of stories that you could, you know, sprinkle into this like seeds and just see how it all comes together.
S1: So Laura should act almost like a reporter, gathering information from her sources and then distilling it into a clear narrative, talking to other people. It might feel onerous, but actually it makes the job easier as friends and family highlight certain stories or themes that’ll help you realize what’s most important.
S3: To include the end of an obituary, by the way, is really open to interpretation. I try to get a good quote from either that person or quote about the person to end my obituaries, because I think that’s the takeaway. It’s the last word. You have to think of an obituary as the last word about a life. And so you want people to walk away from it saying, wow, that was something. You know, if there was just one great quote that you think really characterized him as a man, you know, that might make a great kicker.
S1: Glenn, can you read the one from the the restaurant owner that if you still have it in front of you.
S3: So I ended it. All food manifests affection, Mr. Virgilia wrote in his memoir. It’s a way to nourish and in that way express love and caring. I learned that first from my mother and just continued the thread.
S1: So that’s a beautiful thought to end on. Rake’s It’s like summarizing part of his world view that is based on the work that he does.
S3: Yeah, it’s it’s and it’s very much characterized who he was as a restaurant owner because one of his one of his characteristics that drew people to the restaurant is that he loved opera and he would sing opera to his to his customers while they were eating. Oh, wow. And, you know, there’s a video on YouTube of it. And it’s it’s just wonderful that he wasn’t being pretentious. He just loved the music. He actually trained as an opera singer. So he was good. Not going. And thank you.
S1: Laura, just looking at their calendar and I see there’s a notice of your father’s passing and and it says this is Dave’s legacy, he built a calendar for moments such as this. And while it’s now a little surreal to use this program for our own needs in his absence, we’re also grateful to be able to continue the program in his memory. I think that’s kind of who wrote that person.
S2: That was that was my mom. And it was it was really surreal because we had never really actually officially used care calendar until my dad got sick. And that was our first time humbling ourselves because it felt so weird, like the fact that my dad created this to help people all over the world and now he’s the one in need. And that was hard for him to.
S1: I mean, I could see that story that you just told leading into something like this, quote we just read as the ending of what you’re going to write,
S2: actually, that would be that would be really great, too. That’s a good idea. You know,
S3: when I listen to Laura, I lost my dad when I was 26, so not all that different age. And it was a it’s a whole that, you know, has never filled in. It’s just I think about it every day and I process my life and think sometimes, what would he have said? What would he have done? So, you know, this is such a personal and. Just momentous, life changing moment that there’s no way to encapsulate it and even in words, it’s just something bigger than that. This pandemic has been so brutal for so many people, you just can’t process five hundred thousand dead. You know, it’s just too big. So when you hear the stories that Laura is going to tell that I try to tell in those we’ve lost, it makes you understand that every one of these lives mattered. And and I think that’s the takeaway that I’ve had. And it makes me appreciate my own life that much more. Hmm.
S2: Well, that’s really that’s really deep, and I really I take a lot from that, Glenn. I’m sitting here thinking like this, this past year has been such a drastic, life changing. Yea, for me and my family and and in all reality, it’s it’s hard, it’s painful and it’s sometimes very difficult to be vulnerable. And it’s really this conversation has really helped me boil down what’s important and really learn how much detail and how little detail to give in one aspect or another.
S1: Glenn, do you think Laura’s obviously in this case not going to have a professional editor, but it sounds like her mother is eloquent or and, you know, I don’t maybe have a sibling who likes to read a lot. Do you think it would behoove her to show what she’s writing to someone at some stage and say, what do you think?
S3: Yeah, absolutely. And Laura, because I just I think you’re so wonderful. I’d be happy to take a look at what you write myself if you want to do that. So I could offer suggestions. If you’re if you’re up for that at some point,
S2: that would be such an honor. And I’d absolutely love that.
S1: Thank you to Laura for sharing the story of her dad with us, and thanks to Glen Rifkin for all his great advice. Be sure to look for his byline in The New York Times and for his most recent book, Future Forward. Are you struggling to move on from a loss or maybe dealing with some other problem? You can tell us the full story at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, leave a rating in review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Janice Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is our host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.