Interview with the great NYTimes obituary writer Margalit Fox:
Is it hard for you to navigate sources that are so regularly in a fragile state?
It behooves you, in purely human terms, to treat them as kindly as possible. That said, you don’t want to lull them into the sense that you’re a friend, an advocate, or some sort of a grief counselor. You do have people break down crying on the phone and you just wait patiently for them to regain composure.
In what ways do families try to control the narrative?
Families will say, Oh, be sure to put in that he died surrounded by his loved ones, or, Make sure you add that she touched the lives of everyone she knew. Those are things I never want to put in because they’re these Victorian clichés, but also because the obituary as a form has moved beyond protecting the family’s narrative.
How else has the form changed?
Well, for one thing, they’re a lot more fun to read. They used to be very formulaic.
Since they were considered boring, editors used to assign journalists obits as punishment. You knew someone was in trouble if they were chasing down obituaries.
That started to change with the great Alden Whitman, Mr. Bad News. He was famous for his advances. He’d do all this research and sit down with his subjects and they’d give him these very revealing interviews because they knew nothing would come out till they were gone. Douglas Martin, a colleague of mine who has been on obits longer than I have, started writing them in this charming, lively way, which has influenced my own style.
Our last few obits editors at the Times encouraged, where appropriate, a lighter, more features-style treatment. If you get one of these wonderful characters who took a different route to work one day in 1947 and invented something that changed the world, or one of these marvelous English eccentrics, there’s so much space to play. In the course of an obit, you’re charged with taking your subject from the cradle to the grave, which gives you a natural narrative arc.
I have maybe one suicide a year and they all seem to be poets. If I were an insurance company, I’d never write a policy for poets.
I have many favorite Fox obituaries. Here's just the opening paragraph of one example of her mastery of the form:
Helen Gurley Brown, Who Gave ‘Single Girl’ a Life in Full, Dies at 90
Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of “Sex and the Single Girl” shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but thoroughly enjoyed it — and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more — died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.
My first few years at Amazon, before the human editorial department was cut back, the books, music, and video editorial teams had what was called the Ghoul Pool, a list of famous authors, musicians, and movie professionals who were most likely to die; the editors split up the duties of pre-writing obits and curating lists of the most famous work for everyone on the list.
We're probably just a decade or two away from a surge in the number of public social media accounts that will suddenly just end when their owners pass away. What procedures or etiquette will arise for handling those accounts? Will they be turned off after some period of inactivity, or will they just live on in perpetuity until the services themselves expire, voices gone silent?
We remember many people in history through their collected letters and things like that, but with each generation we will have greater artifacts of ever greater resolution on the deceased. Thousands of tweets and status updates; pictures of all the bowls of ramen they ate across decades of life, helpfully and artificially aged with digital filters; videos of random moments of life that fell in between other moments of life. The sound of their voice. The number of steps they walked each day of their lives. Checkins at all the bars they ended many a night, looking for love, usually finding the bottom of an empty glass instead.
I'd like to think that even if I were no longer alive to view the ads these technology services would try to show me that they'd keep my content up, as a digital archive of my life, warts and all, for my relatives to peruse. Maybe people will have to specify so in their wills, and maybe a large business will be built on preserving these digital footprints, an Internet archive of the deceased, like some digital cemetery.
When I die, I hope to leave behind a witty Gmail “permanently on vacation” message that leaves people with one last chuckle.