Secrets of obituary writing

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Photo: AFP

In RNZ’s news database, in the “General” section of the drop-down menu, there is a little-known, rarely explored, but vitally important file.

A file where Jane Campion meets Jeremy Coney. Which puts Gerry Brownlee and Sue Bradford side by side. Where Rachel Hunter finds herself next to Mark Inglis.

This is the obituary file.

Last month, when Prince Philip died, newsrooms around the world opened their own obituaries.

A story, probably started decades ago and gradually updated over the years, will have been printed. Specific details will have been added – the date of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and his funeral arrangements, for example.

Broadcast journalists will have voiced the stories, print journalists will have taken one last look.

And, within minutes of the Buckingham Palace announcement, painstakingly crafted articles spanning a span of several years, in some cases involving five, maybe even 10, journalists were finally published.

In today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan talks to Bess Manson, reporter and obituary writer for the Dominion Post, and former NZ Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis about the art of the obituary: who commemorates? How are these stories designed? And what do they think of the old aphorism, that you should never speak ill of the dead?

Gavin Ellis has a lasting memory of an obituary he wrote – for the Queen Mother. It was written so long ago that it was placed in hot metal, that the Herald stopped using it in the 1980s.

“It sat in hot metal in a kitchen for years… and she continued… and we moved into computer production… he came out and never saw the light of day.”

The Queen Mother lived to be 101, dying in 2002. Her daughter the Queen is 95 and still going strong, so her obits probably sat for decades.

Ellis says the rationale for who gets an obituary varies.

“Some are pure and simple celebrity. Politicians can be remembered for what they have done – or not done. There is no set formula as to why a person should have an obituary other than they have marked the world in some way or another. “

Once upon a time there were seasoned journalists who scoured obituaries for familiar names, but it seems like an art of the past.

“One of the issues we are currently facing in doing this is the loss of institutional knowledge in our newsrooms. As the number of journalists has been alarmingly reduced, as older journalists retire and are replaced by younger and much cheaper journalists, we have lost our institutional knowledge and so there is no one to walk through. obituaries and say “ah! I remember back in 1967 that person did that, ”and some of these obituaries of almost forgotten events may be the most interesting.

“Notable people then vanished into obscurity, but nonetheless make captivating obituaries when the time comes.”

Some of the most colorful stories involve people whose contributions were made over a long period of time but who weren’t praised for it.

“Giving these people the recognition they fully deserve is an extremely satisfying thing in writing an obituary… that you feel like you’ve helped bring justice to that person. By giving them the recognition that in life they could have been denied.

Also on today’s podcast, Bess Manson talks about the art of writing a person’s life before death.



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