Writing Obituaries For a Living
Margalit Fox has written more than 1,000 obituaries for the Times, where she’s worked for the past decade. Today she writes about the job itself, and the challenges of choosing whose life is newsworthy enough to write about.
More than two million Americans die annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Times can publish scarcely more than 1,000 obituaries a year. As we often say to one another ruefully, running the Obituary department of The Times is like presiding over the admissions committee of the most selective college in the world.
If you are a president, king or queen and you have just shuffled off this mortal coil, then you are a no-brainer. Chances are good, in fact, that we already have an advance obituary of you on file, requiring a reporter only to fill in the where, when and how before the article – long, rigorous and satisfyingly complex – appears, as if by magic, on nytimes.com and the next day in print.
But while these “advances” are invaluable, a good 90 percent of my job, and that of my colleagues, comes in the form of “dailies” – the breaking-news obits that, like articles elsewhere in the paper, are reported and written on deadline in the course of a single adrenaline-fueled day. That is where the deliberations come in.
This sounds like an amazing job.
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