There was a time when the obituaries were the best read part of your daily newspaper. That was, of course, back in the days when you actually had a daily newspaper. But as news moved online and the people producing it skewed younger, writing about someone’s death — or more accurately someone’s life at the time they died — became less of an art form. For many years, the best writers competed for spots on the obit desk because they knew that everyone read them. Somewhere along the line, newspapers taking a last gasp for revenues where none previously existed, experimented with selling paid death notices instead for all but the most famous personalities.
All of which is background to what just happened last week. Actor James Rebhorn died of cancer at age 65 and left behind an obituary he penned himself. It was called “His Life According To Jim” and it appeared originally on his church’s website. But it didn’t stay there long. It went viral and was such a popularly shared read that it got some wondering whether self-written obituaries weren’t the way of the future. But it also got others saying that a self-written obit isn’t really an obit at all.
Sandra Martin, obituary writer for the Globe and Mail and author of “Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada,” called Rebhorn’s letter for his family the ultimate “selfie,” saying it wasn’t an obituary but rather just “a deathbed letter” to his family. In it, Rebhorn writes in the third person and says things like “His children made him immensely proud.”
Martin drew this distinction: Obituaries are journalistically produced endeavors, an assessment of a person’s life — warts and all. “This was a letter meant to soothe the people he was leaving behind,” she said.
Fair enough, but why should a stranger be charged with writing the summary of your life? Sure, in the case of famous people whose obituaries are prepared well in advance of their actual death, obit writers might call the not-yet-deceased’s loved ones and do research. But who knows us better and how we want to be remembered than ourselves? Is this just another print journalism tradition seeped in the arrogance that editors know best and we should just trust them — in this case with telling the story of our lives?
A well-written obit will be read, even if the subject wasn’t a household name. Check out the obit for Betsy Cohen, a 49-year-old who died last month. What made the difference, I suspect, is the obit writer knew her. But most of the time, these are strangers to the deceased doing the writing — so what is it, exactly, they know about the deceased that the deceased couldn’t have said better?
No, I’m not saying Adolf Hitler should have been allowed to write his own obit. But for the rest of us, well, why not? Certainly there is room for both. Leave the big newsmakers to the pros and let the rest of us have our own final word. Here’s a guide to get you started.
In fact, what an excellent business opportunity this presents for out-of-work journalists! If the Rebhorn obit method becomes the new normal, can’t you just see a cottage industry springing up of obituary-writers-for-hire? Throw in a video and it won’t just be “His Life According To Jim” that goes viral. I can see “Jim’s Life” on Pinterest (photos). I can even see “Jim’s Life” as told in his tweets. Is there a GIF waiting to be created of Jim popping his head out from behind the tombstone for some final words? Why of course there is — the GIF memorial.
Heck, with the last of the boomers turning 50 this year, the New Obit could become the stimulus the economy has been searching for. Or not.
Earlier on Huff/Post50: