10 Things I Learned From Editing Obituaries for Two Years

by Elissa Lerner

I recently wrapped up a two-year gig writing and editing for my university alumni magazine. Class notes and obituaries are the bread-and-butter of alumni magazines, and editing them is often a thankless role. At 10,000+ words, or approximately 250 dead people per issue, a strong stomach — for grief of the emotional and copy-editing varieties — is a necessity. This means obits generally get relegated to the youngest person on staff. Obits are one of the most-read sections of alumni magazines, and editing them is by far the least sexy job. Often it felt like this part of the production process would never end (if you think about it, it doesn’t), and mostly I would try to forget about them once an issue wrapped. But, literally hundreds of thousands of words have a way of leaving their mark on you.

Our veterans are dying. The first half to a third of obituaries invariably feature alumni who served in World War II. For a war that feels increasingly remote and locked away inside history textbooks, reading about individual army service is remarkable. It’s also a little mind-boggling. The next time your great uncle can’t figure out what the deal is with Tumblr or Snapchat, ask him where he was in 1944. If he was jumping out of an airplane with 50-plus pounds of equipment on his back into a battle zone in Europe or Asia, see if that makes any more sense to you than #lolcats does to him.

There’s a turning point in every stack of obituaries when the ages of the deceased start to get significantly younger. It’s not like a specific median class year or anything, but you can sense it as you’re reading and editing the content. When the age of the deceased start creeping toward the age of your own parents, things start getting weird. When parents themselves are listed as survivors, you’re hitting this point. When grandparents are listed as survivors…well, you get the idea. You know when King Theoden cries over the grave of his son in The Two Towers and says, “No parent should have to bury their child”? That struck me as a powerful and exceptional scene. But the thing is, it happens every day.

Cancer is real. Piggybacking on the previous note, it’s striking how many of these younger obituaries are due to “a brave battle with cancer.”

So are other diseases that shall not be named. I had an obituary of a man who was a writer, educator, massage therapist, and gay rights activist. Throughout his long and moving obituary, the writer obliquely referred to the man’s long battle with “his illness.” Of course the illness could have been any number of things, and of course the family should have total discretion in the content of the note. But something about the wording and chronology of his story made me wonder, what if it was due to complications of HIV? And if that was the case, have we arrived in 2014, so far into this bright future of landmark Supreme Court decisions and states approving gay marriage, and forgotten how to talk and write about HIV and the long, traumatizing shadow it cast over the gay community for decades?

Meanwhile, on your birthday, someone passed away. This one is creepy, but also kind of wonderful. In the final batch of obits I had the honor of editing, I think three DOD’s (date of death — there’s some inside baseball for you) were on my birthday. It’s strange to think how a day that was pleasant for me was awful for others. We don’t often take a lot of time out of our day-to-day to think about what could possibly be going on inside other people’s heads. Seeing the legacies and accomplishments of some of these folks made me hope that I could do half as well with my life as they had done with theirs.

We are more than our jobs. Twitter’s got nothing on print obit limits. Due to space and style constraints, we couldn’t publish a whole lot about all of our alumni. Word counts are harsh mistresses, so we tended to focus on professional accomplishments and achievements. I agonized and hated myself just a little bit every time I changed the phrase “She worked as a dentist’s assistant” to “She was a dentist’s assistant” to save a measly six characters. Obviously whoever she was, she was so much more. She also raised prize-winning thoroughbred horses; she also traveled to every continent; she also once dined with Queen Anne; she also was an accomplished knitter and cruciverbalist, etc. etc. etc.

Get a degree. For all of the praise we heap on successful college dropout entrepreneurs (why hello there, practically any article ever written about Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, & co.), a whole lot of people who invented a whole lot of things that we use regularly did finish college, and then some. Here’s an alum I’ll never forget: a guy who got his Ph.D. in mycology (the study of fungi, I had to look it up). He put his bioscience skills to work at Coors brewery, where he was part of the team of engineers who concocted Coors Light. Bioscience for beer! That, my friends, is innovation.

Consider your legacy. A beloved professor passed away last year, and did not leave any family as survivors. He did leave behind the 30,000 students who had taken his intro to chemistry class.

Horrible, meaningless deaths happen. This one guy was three weeks shy of graduating, and died in a 95-car pile up in Virginia (due to a bad fog on the highway, of all things) en route to visiting a friend. Another kid was about to join the incoming freshman class but received an infected blood transfusion. These things just make you go, Why? a million times over and there’s no point in running such details in an alumni magazine and basically there’s nothing you can do about it besides be humble and grateful for your continued existence on earth, behind this computer screen, whereupon you have the luxury of reading these words (and I thank you for it).

Nothing’s over until it’s over. The best obituaries were the ones of people who were just totally rocking out right up until the very end. The more you edit obits, the more you realize that “retirement” is relative. Pediatricians who “retired” from hospital work but made house calls until days before their deaths. “Retired” army officers who began second careers in furniture building and third careers in competitive ballroom dancing. And so on. In my last batch, there was a husband and wife who died within months of each other — his degree was from the 1950s, and hers from 2005. So if you will excuse me, I’m going to jump off the Internet for a while and go see what my grandparents are up to.

Photo via highstrungloner/flickr.

Elissa Lerner’s obituary will one day read, “a lifelong New Yorker who took some interesting detours over the years.”