My goal in writing an obituary is to tell a story. I want to make sure I detail the most significant parts of someone’s life — what made them special.
– Richard Goldstein
Why this episode matters
When I was a young teen, I often found my father at the kitchen table in the morning, buried in the obituary section of the Chicago Tribune. As a kid, I thought it was morbid to read about dead people. But those pages and the business section were as much a part of his breakfast as was that bowl of Grape Nuts and cup of coffee. And while I was curious about his motivation, I never asked.
Reflecting on that experience, maybe I knew why all along because later in life, when I was teaching screenwriting as part of an adult education program, I assigned obituaries to my students to help them develop complex and interesting characters. As part of a screenwriter’s tool kit, obituaries are, perhaps, the quintessential example of that utility infielder of expressions — “You can’t make this stuff up” — because, well, you can’t make this stuff up.
Many people mistakenly equate obituaries with death notices, but, as we’ll hear in this episode, obituaries are not tales of death; they are tales of life. They are the CliffsNotes of someone’s identity and relevance. And as much as we know we shouldn’t, we are drawn to them as mirrors, which we figuratively stand in front of and ask, “How does my life compare to this individual’s?”
Yes, maybe that’s what my father was up to all those mornings.
My guest today is Richard Goldstein. Since joining the New York Times in 1980, Richard worked as an editor and an obituary writer, focusing on figures from the military and sports world. He left full-time journalism in 2007, but he has continued to contribute obituary profiles to The Times. He found writing obits — “akin to presenting capsules of history since the lives of many of my subjects evoked their eras.”
What could be just factual lifeless tellings of a person’s life, Richard’s obits instead read like mini works of art — they are literature worthy of their subject. Let’s find out how he works his magic.
And just to be clear, when we talk about obituaries, we’re not talking about death notices that tell you who the deceased is survived by, where and when the viewing is, and where to send flowers or donations. We’re talking about feature-length articles that tell the story of someone’s life.
Contact Richard” Website
My friend and communication coach, Diane Wyzga, suggested a very relevant activity in a recent episode of her daily “60 Seconds” podcast: “What Are the Three Ways We Die and What Is the One Way We Live?”
“Let’s imagine that you are gone. Let’s imagine that someone is telling a story about you, a good story, a memorable story, a keeper of a story. What is it? What would they say?”