You may think chronicling the lives of the dead is either the first or the last job you could have on a newspaper. But after years of writing obituaries for The Globe and Mail, Sandra Martin argues that it taught her there’s “no such thing as an uninteresting or insignificant life.” Martin reflects on how she applied her journalistic approach, pushing for context, insight into strangers’ lives, in her new book, Working the Dead Beat.
Some of you may think that writing obituaries is an odd — perhaps even whacky — occupation for an able-bodied journalist. After all, I could be chasing fires, sniffing out political sleaze, or even waxing editorial about the state of the nation. I used to feel that way too, I confess, until I changed sides from writing about the living to documenting the dead.
I’ve grown accustomed to the arched eyebrow, the flash of revulsion, the involuntary step backwards, and the exclamation “But that’s so morbid” when I tell people what I do for a living. I ignore cracks about the “Siberia of journalism,” pointed queries about who’s “on your slab today,” and the oh-so-clever jokes: How’s life on the dead beat? What’s happening in God’s anteroom? As for the real killer — metaphorically speaking — “Why would you want to write about dead people? They’re finished,” I smile mordantly and murmur, “I’ll keep that in mind if I write your obituary.”
Most journalists have a beat — crime, fashion, arts, health, business, politics. Obituaries encompass all those areas and more, because everybody, from scientists to visual artists, comes under my scrutiny eventually. My tenure as the Globe and Mail’s chief obituary writer has taught me that writing obituaries is the most interesting and often the most terrifying job on any newspaper.
Aside from learning something new every day, which is the spur driving most journalists to get out of bed in the morning, the dead beat has another decided advantage: You never repeat yourself. Literally. That is one of the aspects that appealed to me about obituaries after several years in the arts section writing about books and authors.
On the obituaries desk there is no next year, no next book, no next achievement, no new angle. An obituary is the final word on a subject’s life — until a posthumous biography appears several years down the road. Getting it right, therefore, is daunting, given the urgency of the 24/7 news cycle.
That’s one of the reasons why I have written this book. I wanted to produce a second draft of the lives of fifty Canadians who died in the first decade of this century. Some of them I wrote amid a blur of phone calls and Internet searches; some I didn’t write about at all because they died when I was away or on other assignments. I’m calling these biographical portraits “lives” because they don’t adhere to the rigid deadline and format constraints of the traditional newspaper obituary. They are a bit more expansive, a bit more personal, and a bit more reflective.
When I started on the dead beat, editors wanted the definitive obituary in the next morning’s paper even if the gap between my subject’s last breath and the deadline to send the page to the printers was ludicrously short. Too bad if a worthy Canadian had the bad luck to die late in the day, or at the same moment when a world leader succumbed to a heart attack or a rock star injected a fatal overdose. A few lines below the fold, cobbled together from a wire service, was probably the best the poor departed’s family could expect to read through their tears at breakfast the next morning. Whatever could be scrabbled together became the final word.
Consequently, the whiff of death catapulted reporters into default mode. They would hit the phones, gathering quotes like black bunting from anybody and everybody willing to comment. Often these reaction pieces told you a lot about friends and family members but offered little concrete or coherent information about the subject.
Now it is more likely that a news story announcing the death of a significant person will break on the Web and the obituary will follow at a pace that sometimes seems too leisurely, even to me. They are still dead is the crude but accurate rationalization for scheduling major obituaries as the “big read” for Saturday, because weekend circulation figures generally dwarf the number of weekday subscribers.
Having more time to research and think about a life — although the more important the person, the faster inevitably the turnaround — is a windfall of “the Web is for news, the paper is for analysis” syndrome. The combination of the newsflash on the Web with the promise of “full obituary to follow” in the paper allows for more thoughtful and accurate obituaries, the kind that people want to clip and preserve for second and even third readings. That is one of the continuing pleasures of printed obituaries.
Reprinted from Working the Deadbeat: Fifty Lives that Changed Canada, C 2012 by Sandra Martin. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc. www.anansi.ca