A Well-Written Obituary Reveals the Undying Appeal of Human Interest
If you crave a good human interest story and don’t have time to go to Powell’s Books, check out the obituaries in The New York Times. The subjects are dead but their stories about life can be captivating and inspiring. They can help connect with other people, including target audiences.
Here are the lead paragraphs of several NYT obits from last week:
- David Kirke, a flamboyant British eccentric who made the first modern bungee jump and was known for other daredevil exploits has died at 78.
- At 6 feet 7 and 250-plus pounds, Frank Howard was known for his tape-measure blasts for the Dodgers and the Senators – not to mention all those strikeouts. He has died at 87.
- Wanda Poltawska survived macabre medical experimentation at Ravensbrück to become a psychiatrist, counseled by the priest who would become John Paul II. She was 101.
- Donald J. Laughlin, who transformed a stretch of desert 100 miles south of Las Vegas into a sprawling casino boomtown that was ultimately named after him, has died at 92.
- The child psychologist William E. Pelham Jr. challenged how his field approached attention deficit hyperactivity in children, arguing for a therapy-based regimen that used drugs like Ritalin and Adderall as an optional supplement. He died at 75.
- Saleemul Huq was a Bangladeshi-British scientist who played a leading role in trying get rich nations to compensate poorer ones for the damaging effects of climate change largely brought about by the developed world. He died at 71.
Reading these obituaries is like breezing through a bookstore glancing at tantalizing titles about daring, power, chutzpah, medical breakthroughs and climate champions.
While The Times obits are exceptional in style and scope, you can find memorable and touching life stories in almost any newspaper of note. Newspapers worth reading know that obituaries are the best source of human interest stories under the sun.
More Than Death Notices
Obituaries do more than announce a death, list survivors and give directions for donations. They can tell life stories, rekindle memories and teach lessons. If done right, obituaries can be the most engaging section of a newspaper.
My appreciation for writing obituaries came early in my professional life as a journalist, though not at first. On my first day on the job as a rookie reporter in Port Angeles, I was assigned by the managing editor to write obituaries based on perfunctory forms submitted by funeral homes. The assignment was intended and understood as low-man-on-the-totem-pole grunt work.
After a few days and a dozen dull obits, I decided to call one of the local funeral home directors. “I’ve been reading the forms you’ve been sending and wondered whether you have any more details?”
The funeral home director sounded befuddled. “You want more details?” “Yes. We are writing the final chapter of someone’s life and it would be wonderful to tell more about them than just when they died.”
“That would be wonderful,” the funeral director said, now sounding surprised. As the funeral director and I talked, he warmed to the idea of asking families to supply more details, even stories about their loved ones. Before long, I was receiving extended notes instead of forms. I called back the funeral home director and asked, “Do you think family members would mind if I called them to follow up on the notes you’ve sent me?”
“I will check.” Later the same day, he called back and said they would be glad to talk with me. He sent me their phone numbers. My interviews with family members produced feature story after feature about interesting lives of local people – a rancher who specialized in a Scottish highland breed of cattle, a Sierra Club member who lived among loggers, a war veteran, a pacificist, an inventor, a ship pilot, a women’s rights advocate, a whale hunter, the man who tended John Wayne’s yacht.
It may have been a small town, but it had big stories to tell. And they were full of life. Even my crusty managing editor thought so as he kept putting them on the front page instead of the last page.
Finding Human Interest
Good human interest stories often involve finding the extraordinary among the ordinary, much as talented obituary writers do.
Steve Hartman tells stories on CBS News. He has a knack for finding heartwarming stories. A grandmother who overcame the grief of her grandson’s death by hosting a weekly breakfast club in her kitchen for his classmates. A Tennessee woman who worked five decades as a hospital cleaner because it was her dream job. A Texas teacher who inspired her first grade class to take an imaginary plane flight to Mexico. A man suffering from deep depression who has a support alligator named Wally. So far, Hartman was won 23 Emmy Awards.
Mo Rocca has a podcast called Mobituaries dedicated to introducing his listeners to dead people with intriguing storylines. His subjects include Benedict Arnold before he broke bad, singer Peggy Lee who inspired Miss Piggy Lee of the Muppets, and trailblazing movie star Anna May Wong who succeeded despite Hollywood racial bias and whose likeness now graces a U.S. quarter. Rocca recounted the life of Larry Doby, the second great Black baseball player who reached the Major Leagues 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson, and the death of a richer tasting banana in the mid-20th century because of a fungus and conniving banana barons.
Rocca has written a book about obituaries. “I inherited my love of obituaries from my father who always said obits were his favorite section of the newspaper. And I think it’s because my father had a real sense of the romance of life, he appreciated the sort of dramatic sweep of an obituary – seeing a person’s life, the highs and lows, kind of reduced to a few inches of newsprint.”
Obituaries are a proven way to tell a memorable human story and give voice to someone or something hidden in silence. Fascination with obituaries is no secret. There are books about great obituaries, the ‘dead beat’ of men and woman who write obituaries and a selfie guide on how to write your own obituary.
Sharing human experience is one of the most reliable ways to connect with people. Human interest stories reflect an interest in human experience.
Some stories unfold before your eyes. Others require some digging. The most basic and consistent avenue of discovery is curiosity.
For example, in his live show, Rocca wryly describes three noteworthy people with the same three-word names. “John Paul Jones is the father of the American Navy. John Paul Jones was the bassist for Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones is a contestant on The Bachelorette.”
Retired New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox talked about her trade. “The dirty little secret is, it’s the best beat in American journalism. But I’m firmly convinced the child has not been born who comes home from primary school clutching a theme that says ‘When I grow up I want to be an obituary writer.’ That’s never going to happen. And so journalists, including me, stumble into it quite by accident.”
Stumbling onto something of human interest in an obituary can be a memorable life experience. As Fox recalled, some of her favorite obit subjects were the unforgettable inventors of stove top stuffing, etch-a-sketch and pink lawn flamingos.