Liz Covart on our team for the 2014 AHA. Liz's blog Uncommonplace Book is must reading for independent historians or any historian who wants to develop a writing platform and speak to public audiences. Yesterday Liz attended a session entitled "Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary." Here is her report:
On Thursday January 2, 2014, I attended "Historians, Journalists, and
the Challenges of Getting it Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary."
Sponsored by the National History Center,
this roundtable panel included Journalism professor Janice R. Hume (University of Georgia),
Adam Bernstein, Editor at The Washington Post, New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and panel chair, Martin H. Kaplan
(University of Southern California). Kaplan posed questions to each
panelist and allowed the other panelists to chime in with their thoughts
The panel imparted fun and informative information about obituaries, their history, and the ethics involved in writing them.
Janet R. Hume provided historical information and contextualized the
panelists' discussion. Hume wrote the book on early obituaries. Obituaries in American Culture surveys more than 8,000 newspaper
obituaries between 1818 and 1930.
According to Hume, obituaries in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
America reported on the qualities that people admired about the
deceased. They tended to be sentimental pieces written by editors who
used familial accounts as source information. (Prior
to the Civil War newspapers did not have reporters to conduct
interviews with people who knew the deceased.) As a result of this
source material and a strong Christian influence, early obituaries
tended to be overly polite; they tried to fit people into categories
that they did not fit into because they wanted to highlight the
deceased's moral goodness.
Hume also remarked on how early American obituaries discussed dying in
metaphorical and poetic terms. People did not die. Instead, they were
"scathed by the wing of the angel of death."
Finally, Hume discussed the obituary as a historical source. Early
obituaries reflect the cultural resonance of death stories with
nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. Hume cautioned historians
to be careful with how they use obituaries as obituary
writers have a cultural filter that they impose on their writing. She
also stated that online obituary message boards and comment threads
offer scholars a new view on how our contemporaries participate in the
bereavement process by interacting with obituaries.
Adam Bernstein discussed the logistics of being a modern-day obituary
writer. First and foremost, obituaries are news stories. They impart the
news that someone has died and function as an "accountability" story
for the life and accomplishments of the deceased.
The Washington Post publishes approximately 2,000 obituaries a year
and has about 400 advance obituaries on file. Newspapers keep obituaries
on file for the President and other famous and important national and
world leaders in case something happens. These
advance copies give the obituary reporter a draft that they can quickly
update, which in turn helps the writers keep their publications on top
of the news cycle.
Bernstein also noted that modern-day newspapers are more egalitarian
about who gets an obituary. Prior to the 1980s, a person who read
obituaries may have thought that few women and African-Americans died.
Newspapers often printed obituaries for white men,
but rarely for women and African-Americans.
In contrast with The Washington Post, Adam Clymer noted that The New
York Times does not print obituaries for local people and the NYT has
approximately 1500 advance obituaries on file. Clymer also discussed
the art of interviewing people for an advance
obituary. Clymer calls the person and tells them that he is a reporter
with The New York Times and that he would like to interview them about
the story of their political career. Often his subjects do not realize
who he is or what he is writing. Most assume
that "it is about time" that The New York Times has called for their
story. Some of his interviewees figure out his purpose, but most do not
know that they are recording their thoughts and achievements for
The audience question and answer session started several interesting,
brief discussions about the differences between American obituaries and
their British counterparts, how obituary writers need to stick to the
"public" facts of a person's life while historians
remain free to probe into the personal details of a deceased person's
life, and recognized that poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt
Whitman wrote some of the most interesting early obituaries in verse.
Thanks, Liz. Stay tuned for Liz's next post on a session on writing history for public audiences.