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Honoring those who passed- America’s Best writing obituaries

September 20, 2012

While obituaries often carry a morbid connotation, these articles should communicate fond memories and a life’s importance. According to America’s Best Newspaper Writing, reporters should write obituaries in a manner that celebrates the individual rather than infuse the story with a mournful tone. Although long obituaries are typically reserved for celebrities and public figures, America’s Best Newspaper Writing contained examples written by Jim Nicholson, a former reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News, who wrote feature-style obituaries for the private person. When analyzing Nicholson’s work, obituary writing exhibits similar characteristics as local reporting. An obituary for a common person should establish connections between the subject and the larger community and “transform the mundane into the transcendent” (62). Like journalists who engage in local reporting, reporters should recognize the uniqueness of otherwise anonymous individuals and call attention to their exceptional qualities.

Nicholson’s report on the death of Edward E. “Ace” Clark exemplifies this aspect of obituary writing. Even the inclusion of Clark’s nickname in the headline cultivates a personal relationship between the reader and the deceased. The article chronicles Clark’s life, beginning with the development of the name “Ace,” and strings together a series of anecdotes to provide the reader with a picture of his routine and insight into his character. Clark’s relationship with his horse makes the otherwise common man appear unique and illustrates Bob Clark’s humorous memory of his father during a typically mournful time. The inclusion of the “old icemen’s line” continues to paint a comical portrait of Clark, making the obituary seem more lively. Furthermore, the description of Clark delivering the ice to each house portrays him as, not only a hardworking man, but also a trustworthy individual. Nicholson constructs his profile using brief stories, inviting the reader to identify Clark’s character as if they observed him personally. This strategy appears in other examples as well. Alana Baranick won an ANSE award for an obituary about Josephine Milbrandt, and the details in the lead immediately serve as a window into the article’s subject and her trusting nature.

Nicholson’s report of Marie Byrne is similarly structured. The reporter allows the reader to view Byrne through the eyes of her children and family members. His attention to details, such as the name of her high school, the genre of songs played after Mass and inclusion of the letter from “Uncle Mary” creates an intimate relationship between the audience and the character. The mention of the nickname “Uncle Mary” also communicates personal information about the family, allowing the reader to feel part of the “inner circle.” Although the article includes some of Byrne’s flaws, such as her inability to prepare a proper meal or rely a joke, the reporter dismisses these qualities as minor weaknesses, over looked by those who grew to appreciate her concern and attention. Their presence in the article only adds to her portrayal as lovable and quirky. Similarly, Baranick’s obituary about Patty Crites opens with a scene characteristic of her personality and how she is remembered. Additionally, in Baranick’s article concerning George Kossoff, she uses his profession and passion for selling orthopedic shoes to provide insight into his character as a caring individual.

Although Tom Shales’ article concerns a famous individual, the obituary still exhibits similar qualities. Shales reported on the death of Ray Bolgers, the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” The article weaves scenes from Bolgers’ performances through the article, illustrating his impact on American culture. The beginning and ending of the obituary demonstrate how this cultural icon will always be remembered in conjunction with the classic movie and shows how his memory extends beyond those who knew him personally or were alive during his time. The parallels between the movie quotes and Shales’ description of the actor allows Bolgers’ most admired character to exit the film and occupy space in the public’s reality. The analogy continues through to the end of the article in which the reporter asks how the viewers can thank Bolger for his cherished role. Shales’ answer of “immortality” contrasts the purpose of the obit and suggests Bolgers’ continuing presence.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. andersj permalink
    September 23, 2012 12:11 pm

    You learned an extra lesson or two or three from this. Although you did the extra in error I will definitely count it as extra credit as long as you do the missed section before the end of the semester sometime.

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