The Thing About Obituaries

As a reporter, my favorite stories to write were obituaries. I realize that sounds morbid, but writing the final profile of a person’s life, I felt, was the biggest responsibility a journalist could have – a story that his or her family members would cut out, store in the kitchen drawer or slide into a photo album for safe keeping, something to remember them by.

The one I remember most distinctly was about an 8-year-old boy. I was working a late-night cops shift when word came over the scanner that a child had been struck and killed by a freight train in rural Tioga County, NY. Police suspected the boy – on his way to the store to buy bread for his mom – had been riding his bike on the train tracks and didn’t hear the train come up behind him.

On that day, I was one of those journalists that people outside the industry hate – the one putting a tape recorder in the face of a parent whose child, full of hopes and dreams and energy and life just hours before, was dead – and, yes, asking him “how do you feel?”

Somehow, the boy’s father found it in himself to answer my questions and, without prompting, retrieved the boy’s final school picture from the house. Smiling, crooked teeth, brown hair, blue and red striped shirt – the image is seared into my brain, even now, 15 years later. When I asked if we could publish the picture, the father nodded quietly and, as I turned to leave, asked me to do a good job.

I remember crying in the car as I drove back to the paper, as I wrote the story, as I waited for it to be edited – not wanting to leave, feeling an ownership over it that I’d not felt on previous assignments. What I felt was beyond “responsibility” – it was “duty,” a duty to be absolutely perfect in this one, knowing that, for years to come, his classmates, his family, his community would have that article in a kitchen drawer or a photo album or yearbook and would look back on it to remember.

Hopefully, I did a good job.

We wrote two stories that night – the breaking coverage for the front page, and a profile of a boy who was riding his bike to the market to pick up a loaf of bread for Mom. That’s the thing about obituaries, what makes them so fascinating to me – it’s the ultimate news story: A life was led, in most cases led well, and the world was changed in some small fundamental way.

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