In 2001 I started as a reporter-intern for the Staten Island Advance. I had already been freelancing as a teenager, so I knew a bit here and there, but I had never taken a course in journalism. I wasn’t unique.
On one of the first days, at our orientation meetings, we reporter-interns were told that the first thing to learn – and the first thing we’d do – was to write an obituary.
Clearly, this didn’t appeal to most of us. At first, I couldn’t see past the dead people. I quickly realized, though, that writing obits isn’t about the dead people; it’s about communicating with the living – the mourning living.
I toughened myself up for the task; after all, most people who die are already old and the families were expecting it… right? So the chances of me getting handed a 47-year-old father of three who died of cancer should have been slim… right?
Slim or not, there I was, staring at this guy’s name, age, cause of death. He seemed Latino from the name. I tried to answer the question list myself, making up a story as I went along.
“He was an insignificant guy; his family lost touch with him years ago when he was caught selling drugs to teenagers. No reason to feel bad, you see.”
Better yet, I thought, maybe the family won’t want an obit; they’ll decline the offer and I’ll wish them luck.
But deadline was approaching and I wanted to be a journalist.
I dialed most of the number and hung up. I looked around the press room. I listened to the phones ringing, the voices, the faint T.V. background noise. The cop radio. The world of a reporter.
And I dialed again.
I spoke to the guy’s brother first. He was sweet and more than willing to gush about his brother, a family man, a hard worker. Loved by all. Missed by all. He passed me to his brother’s widow, and my stomach felt deep and hollow. She was crying a bit, but happy to know he’d be in the paper. It would be a good thing to have.
I finished the interview and missed the guy.
You know why obits are the first thing a journalist is assigned? Because it’s the core of every story s/he’ll ever write. An obit is:
Details, details, details:
Weeks later, I was doing three to six obits a day, at least. It was part of the shift. I spoke to old people, young people, relatives who missed their mothers and relatives who hadn’t spoken to their mothers in years. The mourners of heroes, of saints, of nonchalance, of victims to this or that.
I think about my first obit sometimes when I remember my venture into reporter-hood. There are other stories I remember too – speakers, elections, government events, city issues, small crimes, fires – and its some of those stories that are the reasons I pulled out of journalism.
But I stopped minding obits after a while and soon enjoyed those phone calls with the living. It reminded me that I, too, was alive.