What will be the lead of your obituary?

I have decided to add a new service to my writing business – advance obits.

These stories will be shorter, less detailed and cost less than the life stories I offer, more in the wire service style.

This has always been an unspoken, unadvertised, benefit of my stories – the prepared obituary to be tucked in a file along with the last will and testament.

Since most of us don’t rate a proper newspaper obit, this would be an alternative to the boilerplate notices assembled by funeral directors, generally a bulleted resume and list of survivors.

Sadly, that was all I could find when my old colleague, Chisholm MacDonald, died recently. (I can’t even calculate Chisholm’s age when he died on January 9, since the funeral home obit did not give his date of birth, only the year.)

Chisholm was a wonderful writer, an interesting Down East character, who toiled for many years as a reporter and rewriteman for the Canadian Press. Yet not even CP deigned to run a proper obit.

Instead, we were left with an indistinct trail of comments posted on Facebook:

  • And the golden age of writing by typewriter. I sat beside him on the rewrite rim from time to time in my early CP days and wondered how he found those words. Inspirational.
  • I learned a lot from Chisholm MacDonald. He was very generous with his time when I was new to journalism.
  • He was a wonderful fellow and a terrific writer with a great sense of humour.
  • He had a great turn of phrase that brought any story to life.
  • When I worked on The Canadian Press Ontario Desk as a summer intern, Chisolm (misspelled) was so generous with his time and knowledge. I loved his writing and his jokes too. A very kind man.
  • A fine man. A wonderful reporter.
  • A humble man. Turned out some absolutely wonderful stuff and always seemed startled if anyone said so.

If there had been an obit that did justice to the man, written in advance and based on an interview with Chisholm, I suspect it would have been welcomed and published by any one of the understaffed newspapers in his native Maritimes.

And it definitely would be cherished by all those survivors, especially the grandkids, listed in that funeral home obit.

I have no idea what would be the lead and content of a proper obituary of Chisholm since, like the rest the rest of us, there is no publicly available storehouse of information, not even a Wikipedia page, from which to draw a picture of his life.

And I’m sure, like most of my fellow journalists, he would have shrugged off the need for someone else to write his story.

Yet you might consider the famous Lincoln quote: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

We all wonder what would be the lead of our obituary.

“When I die, if the word ‘thong’ appears in the first or second sentence of my obituary, I’ve screwed up,” Albert Brooks once said, recalling his scene wearing a red thong in the movie The In-Laws.

As someone who turned 70 recently, I recognize that once you reach a certain age, chances are your most notable accomplishments and life experiences are in the memory bank and ready to be shared.

And there is a more urgent need to uncover and preserve the most memorable moments, the most meaningful anecdotes, of the life of those in the early stages of dementia.

When I was a copyboy at the New York Times in the mid-1960s, I would often encounter Alden Whitman in the morgue, reading clip files.

Whitman was then the paper’s most celebrated obituary writer. He did advancers on the most prominent people of his time – presidents, popes, prime ministers, Nobel laureates and the like.

A 1966 Esquire profile of Whitman, written by Gay Talese, was under the headline: Mr. Bad News. Yet most of those Whitman interviewed appreciated he took the time to present their obituaries with such preparation and care.

In the Talese piece, Whitman even imagined the lead of his own obit:

Alden Whitman, a member of the New York Times staff who wrote obituary articles on many of the world’s notable personalities, died suddenly last night at his home, 600 West 116th Street, of a heart attack. He was fifty-two years old.

When he died at the age of 76, in 1990, the lead in the Times was more flattering:

Alden Whitman, a retired reporter for The New York Times who pioneered the use of interviews of notable people to personalize and energize their obituaries, died yesterday at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

Before I started writing TV news at CBC in 1998, I was given a test. Among the questions was this: You’ve just died. But you’re not very important, so all you deserve is a 30-second copy story. Write your own obituary.

My answer:

It would have been nice if Ken Becker could have written this story.

But he can’t … because he’s dead.

He was one of the many writers who put words in the mouths of people like me.

And he did it well … made us sound more intelligent than this.

He worked for Newsworld in its formative years.

Then he disappeared suddenly … and mysteriously … at about the same time the CBC reported a 10-million-dollar shortfall it could not account for.

Ken Becker died today of boredom at his private island in the South Pacific.

He was 95.

 

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