Life of the ‘Dead Beat’

The sudden death of a valued member of society always reminds me of the life of an obituary writer.

Often mocked as morbid or sad, writers of the ‘dead beat’ in fact have the fulfilling duty of living out people’s final legacy. It’s not always easy but (more often than not) the job comes with “unexpected joys.” 

For one man, it was a matter of “making a difference.” And yes, he truly did. 

Obit writers are tasked with summarizing and capturing an accurate account of a person’s life. 

The trick with writing obits? Not the timing but rather the content of the legacy.

"Oftentimes those obits just sit around for years and years and sometimes the people who wrote them are gone before the celebrity. It’s one of the tricky things about writing advance obituaries." In Elizabeth Taylor’s case, the writer died nearly six years before she did

"The main criteria for deciding which subjects befit an obituary is that they are ill or old, by which I mean mid-70s onwards," writes Bob Chaudy.

It is those times when a celebrity dies suddenly that sends a writer (or publication) into a scramble. But at the end of the day, “The reader will expect a well-crafted assessment of the subject’s life and that takes time. In the case of TV, it can be several days,” Chaudy explains.

So it’s why I find it fascinating that the New York Times can publish a 3,500-word tribute to Steve Jobs within minutes of his death and even the common man can get the Life profile they deserve. 

"We’re bringing them back for a curtain call," says Marylin Johnson who wrote celebrity obits for Life early in her career.

In fact, as Steve Job’s death inadvertently demonstrates, the obit section is one area of print (or column inches) that continues to expand even as the space to print shrinks. Media has “recognized the value of capturing people’s lives.” And I think Tumblr, while a form of online news, demonstrates that idea perfectly.

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