By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The art of the obit

Something for which the Boston Globe deserves a lot of credit is that it treats local obituaries with the seriousness they deserve. I especially like the way its obits shine a spotlight on the lives of ordinary people, who often turn out to be not ordinary in the least.

Today the Globe’s Bryan Marquard tells us about the life of Stella May Brown Weaco, a lovely soul of dubious sanity who died on Dec. 31 after many years of homelessness, which ended only after she became ill. Marquard writes:

Obituaries usually confer honorifics, but what title could capture Stella? Given occasionally to delusions, she offered no clear explanation of how she acquired the name Weaco, which is not on her birth certificate. Was she married or a mother? Workers at Women’s Lunch Place hope a relative will read this and inquire about Stella.

Born in Coffeeville, a small Mississippi town some 90 miles south of Tennessee, she spoke of having lived in Memphis. She also said she was born in Jerusalem, was a member of the Rockefeller family, “and was part of a very select group,” [Boston Health Care for the Homeless president Jim] O’Connell said. “And I think that last part was true.

“Among the homeless, he said, “she was an aristocrat.”

I tell my students that obituaries are the most important part of a newspaper, at least for friends and family members. But telling isn’t the same as showing, which Marquard does on a regular basis.

More: Mike Stucka rightly notes that Steve Landwehr of the Salem News has been performing similar journalistic artistry with obits.

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  1. mikestucka

    Hey hey! I’d put the amazing Steve Landwehr from your hometown paper (and my employer), the Salem News, up against any obituary writer of any time. In one recent instance, the the Globe vowed to rip off an obituary story as an editor’s “special,” then may have never followed through.The last three people the Salem News remembered:Aunt Sarah, 107, who said life is too short. (Maria Saverina DeFlorio)Marblehead’s Johnny Appleseed, John “Jack” Hamilton, 87.KT, or Kathleen Teetsel, 53, a gold medalist in the Transplant Olympics.Mike, just for himself

  2. Jack

    When my sister, Jenny Birch, died in 2006, Bryan Marquard wrote an obit that brought many family members and friends to tears. Here is an excerpt from my thank-you note to him:”I am writing to thank you for the eloquent obituary that you wrote for Jenny. It amazes me how you were able to capture the essence of the personality of someone whom you have never met, and compose a word-portrait more faithfully accurate than any of us who know her well could ever have mustered.”-JackB

  3. DanH

    For proof of wrong things can get when obits are for sale, read most any edition of the Cape Cod Times.It’s hard to believe that every single person who dies on Cape Cod was a saint and paragon of virtue and courage, but to read these syrupy puff pieces, that’s what they say.Often missing are key details and milestones in these folks’ lives, supplanted by smarmy inclusion of friends and even neighbors in the survivors’ section.These paid obits (not death notices) are unprofessional and distasteful at best, and ruinous of the paper of record function which used to make obits a valuable tool for historians.-dan

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Dan: You’re right on target. Obituaries are news stories, and when they cease to be that, they ought to be banished from the paper. Paid death notices are one thing, but obits should be sacrosanct.

  5. Peter Porcupine

    DK – hear, hear!We CCTimes readers USED to have excellent obituaries of local people. Now, Nickerson Bearse – financially challanged former selectman and community luminary – gets a crappy 15-pt agate free death notice. Some bloviating realtor from New Jersey who USED to own a house in Eastham gets a full half page of his accomplishments in Farmington, because we on Cape ALL care so much and he has money to burn (true example).Our obituaries have gone straight to hell – and just at the time I might be featured in them! (joke)

  6. O-FISH-L

    I have to honorably mention the Globe’s Tom Long, who I believe may have taken the buyout in recent years. Long wrote a nice obit about my father, who died in 2004. Laminated copies of same are still hung with pride on refrigerators throughout the family.

  7. Bill H.

    My local newspaper, owned by GateHouse, went to the paid “obituary” format lately, and what a shame. Amateur hour has replaced professional journalism and, no doubt about it, the reading public is poorer for it. Very few bereaved family members, no matter how devoted, can do justice to the deceased in a paid newspaper piece. Worse, readers who didn’t know the person are often deprived of the opportunity to understand what the community has lost because of the death. It is particularly ironic that most of the people I know who subscribe to this particular paper claim to do so only so they can be apprised of who died in town.

  8. NewsHound

    I couldn’t agree more with Dan H and Bill H about GateHouse destroying old fashioned journalism with paid obituaries. That’s the way it is where I live, and I don’t want to be paying for an advertisement that I’ve died when that happens. As Dan H wrote: “These paid obits (not death notices) are unprofessional and distasteful . . . ” I, too, have read some very interesting obits in the Boston Globe, and many other papers, about people I have never known. Every life is too valuable for a newspaper to overlook such a great opportunity to write a nice obituary.

  9. O-FISH-L

    Bill H. wrote: “It is particularly ironic that most of the people I know who subscribe to this particular paper claim to do so only so they can be apprised of who died in town.”—Bill, that’s why the obits are known as the Irish sports page!

  10. Amused

    Traditionally, there have been two species on the Irish Sports Page, the obituary, a story about the deceased which held to journalistic standards, and the funeral notice which listed details and, in some papers, laudatory tributes to the dearly departed.I would reluctantly say that paid tributes are OK as long as they are separated from news obits. Unfortunately, once the paid obits start creeping into what look like newscolumns, this valuable service became indistinguishable, and when journalism is indistinguishable from paid copy, we have a problem (I personally believe it began when people wanted Auntie Em’s obit to list Toto as a survivor.) The papers realized they could skip merrily away from any sort of news obituary and make a profit at the same time, so “news” obits came to be only for the high-and-mighty.The Eagle-Tribune newspapers have jumped into this trend, the sappy slop that passes for obits in the flagship convince me that the co-owned Salem News obits are an endangered species.I have also told prospective journalists to always read the obits, because therein lies the history of the community; consistent reading over a long period will help you understand all sorts of interrelationships and historic facts and trends you would otherwise never know, especially in smaller, parochial cities where you are an outsider.Don’t forget Edgar Driscoll or Bill Buchanan alongside Tom Long on the list of masters of the craft, either. Nor should you ignore the attention the NY Times puts on obituaties (I wish I could recall that great line about a sense of impending doom when the Times obituary editor invited you to lunch.) The Times has long published the fawning tributes, but has kept it in the paid agate section of the obituary page, the part we generally refer to as ‘funeral notices,’ which is where such things ought to be.

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