I was in a car on a
sad stretch of the Illinois Skyway in December, primed for melancholy by balding
medians and rusted factories, when William McDonald broke my heart. McDonald, editor of the New York Times obituaries section, was being
interviewed on WBEZ’s Morning Shift. What he said was this:
We hear about deaths, we hear about people ... we look for stories of people who really mattered. Of course we all matter in some sense, but mattered to the greater society, who did something with some wider impact, whether it’s an invention or developed a product or wrote an influential book. [Listen to the interview here.]
I don’t mean to criticize McDonald, because he’s got to sift for gold in a voluminous current of daily death, but I've been hung up on the implicit judgments made by obituaries pages ever since. McDonald’s examples of human worth — an inventor, a product developer, the author of an "influential" book — were merely the first things that leapt to his mind, and not a comprehensive list of the Times’ criteria for sure, but in the moment they betrayed a bias toward those who had changed the marketplace. If only, he seemed to suggest, Ed Lowe, the inventor of Kitty Litter, could die again every day.
But you can help. Start by reading Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries (2006), a quirky compendium of anecdotes about historic obits, the lions of the genre and the fans. You'll learn that there are American fetishists of obits written in the UK, where conventions of the genre have a slightly more elastic range: from the London Telegraph, “The 3rd Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila, aged 55, provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle” (The Dead Beat, p. 17).
But you’ll let the Telegraph do its acerbic thing. Instead, you’ll take your cue from a writer named Jim Nicholson, who lifted the “common man” obituary from the small-town paper, where everyone knew the deceased, to a national platform as the obituary writer at the Philadelphia Daily News from 1982 to 2001. When he started his beat, the rule was, "The newsroom handles the big guys, Nicholson writes about the nobodies." But soon his write-ups of dead nobodies proved the more compelling:
Herbie Speach lived until he died. He was a man's man, a ladies' man and a man for all occasions … That's the kind of letter carrier he was for 38 years, seven months and three days. He was a mailman who didn't simply deliver letters, he presented them. [An essay by Nicholson is here; samples of his work are here.]
If Nicholson’s your mentor, Susan Orlean is your structural model. For her first book, Saturday Night, she rolled into a town and partied with whomever was ready to tie one on. You, too, are going to roll into town, but then you're going to wait for someone to die. From there, follow Nicholson’s advice: “Just write stories of people like [yourself]. First come, first served. Let them tell it. Just arrange the words so the obit reads well.” And hurry up — I’m still on the shoulder of the Illinois Skyway with my head on the steering wheel. I’ve switched to the classic rock station, which isn’t helping, and as soon as I try to get back on the road I hear McDonald: “…of course we all matter in some sense,” i.e. “OF COURSE NOBODY MATTERS BUT OPRAH WINFREY.”
Please write this book. Please, go party with the dead.