I was sitting there one day in June, the tools of my job as a reporter in hand: shorthand, red felt, well of curiosity. Willing to listen to someone’s story, as I have done a thousand times over for decades.
“This has to be the worst interview you’ve ever had,” said the woman who told me about her life in the random way most people do – full of tangents and funny anecdotes.
“This is not an interview,” I said. “Just tell me what made you happy.”
It wasn’t a lie; it was not an interview. I was with my oldest friend in the world next to her bed at the Agrace hospice. I was there not only because I loved my friend and wanted to be with her, but because, in a way, I had a job to do.
I was there to write his obituary.
It probably seems like a worrying, even frightening, task for some people. But in the world of writers I exist in, a lot of us have done it over the years. And because of how obituaries have evolved over the past few decades, it’s a task that has fallen into the hands of not just a family writer, but anyone willing or able to do it.
I wrote that of my mother; I teamed up with my sister to write my father’s. I helped friends write them for parents or grandparents. I wrote one for another of my best friends and was just told, “Make him sing.” And Cher must be in there. It was the best editorial direction I have ever had in my life.
It would have been inconceivable for the 21-year-old version of myself who spent weekends as a Register of Monks intern with the kind of first job many journalists once had: writing obituaries. I used to joke with my friends that I hoped I didn’t die on a Saturday because there would be no one to write my obituary.
During those weekends of the 1980s, funeral directors would show up with a packet of forms for me with the details I would use for the obituary – date of birth, survivors, when services were and, rare. for a newspaper at the time, cause of death.
The obituary, which was free, was considered a very small report and the cause of death was required. If there was one detail the family wanted (or wanted to avoid) that didn’t follow our form – cause of death, survivors beyond a standard list of spouses and children – they had the option to skip the free option and pay for an obituary. Looking back, it sounds so cold.
Because the Register was so strict about including these details, my colleagues and I backed down when we saw other newspapers drop the production of staff-written obituaries filled with facts and more or less outsource them to survivors who wrote what they wanted. This is how most newspapers approach them now, posting obituaries – free or paid – submitted by a funeral home on behalf of family or friends. And I have come to like the evolution that has brought us to contemporary obits. It is less about the announcement of a death than about the life of a person. It is a beautiful thing.
Obits continued to follow me professionally when I moved to Madison to join the copy office of Times of the capital when it was a printed daily. We edited the obituaries provided by funeral homes, primarily checking for spelling or time / date errors. We smiled as people’s dogs or trucks were listed as survivors and anecdotes detailed lives well lived. Some of my friends in the obituary factual world couldn’t believe that we were essentially publishing them as is and just cleaning them up a bit. I thought it was awesome.
“I don’t care if they write that the person went to heaven to dance polka with Jesus,” I said. “We just have to make sure they spell Jesus correctly.”
This summer at Agrace, my friend had no desire to talk about polka dancing with Jesus or anything quirky. She wasn’t even sure what she wanted beyond me writing it down. That’s the first thing she said to me when I first saw her at the hospice (well, after she put her hands up in the air and said, basically, “What “What is it?” It was the first thing his sons asked me, and so did his stepfather. Obviously, it was weighing heavily on his mind.
Because her loved ones knew how important it was to her, they stayed away one afternoon so that we could talk. And we needed it; after high school my friend and I lost contact and only reconnected in our 40s, so there were gaps to be filled. I had enough to build a plan and get started, and asked her if she wanted to read it.
“I don’t know,” she said.
My friend didn’t have the chance. She had a seizure a few days later and died the next morning. With my red marker scribbles from our conversations at Agrace, I sat down in front of my keyboard to finish the job that had been given to me.
It was a challenge, of course, but more than that, it was a privilege. Writing is sort of intangible, not the kind of thing you do for people as a favor – certainly not if you are a journalist. Yet when the time comes to write an obituary, writers can do what they do best – tell a story – for someone in their world. A mechanic can fix his child’s car. An electrician can install his mother’s new ceiling fan. A chef can prepare a feast for his friends.
Me? The writer? Online and in print, I have been able to tell the world about my friend since I was 5 years old. I was able to clearly say how much she was loved. I have to sprinkle with a little mischief. I was able to relate how her six-year-old partner had had a crush on her since we were all together in first grade. I must have used the expression “cow pie bingo”. I must call my friend “a beautiful soul”.
I will never fix a car or mess up the wiring. But I do know that I was able to use my writing skills to give one last gift to the people I love most.
And that makes me happy.
Jane Burns is a Isthmus longtime contributor, journalist and freelance writer and editor who works at UW-Madison. She lives on the west side of Madison but hangs out a lot at Mount Horeb.