Friday, February 24, 2012

writing obituaries as a young reporter & a haunting story

In the late '70s I worked for a daily newspaper in a small coastal town in California. One of the things I loved most was the cacophony of the newsroom. The teletype machine was always clacking in the background with breaking news from the wire services. Phones rang and editors yelled. Reporters were at their typewriters, mostly black Underwoods that dinged when you hit the return bar and had a satisfying clickity-swoooosh when you pulled the finished story out of the inked roller.

"Today it's news, tomorrow it wraps fish," an editor told me when I was laboring too long over a lead paragraph. Usually there was only time for one draft before an article appeared in print.

At first I wrote weather reports, wedding and anniversary blurbs and---most interesting of all--obituaries. By 8 a.m. the funeral homes would call with the death notices and I would then try to make the nicest stories out of the grimmest details. Sometimes I called family members to learn more about their loved one so that the obit could have a little warmth. It might sound macabre, but I really enjoyed writing these short stories, as I called them.

Sometimes, however, calls from the mortuaries were upsetting. One morning I took a page of notes before realizing the person I was to write about was my next door neighbor, a young man who had always waved hello, but had suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night.

The call that has haunted me the most was from a funeral director telling me about his cousin. I was sympathetic of course, then asked my usual questions. When I hung up the phone and set my pencil down, I felt numb. To this day I don't remember what I wrote. This is what he told me:

Sometime in the night his cousin, a middle-aged man with an undetermined illness, decided to end his life. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone with a mess or an ambulance bill if he were to have been found alive, he drove himself to the mortuary and shot himself. His cousin came to work the next morning and discovered his childhood friend on the steps with a note explaining all this.

As I said earlier, I don't remember what I wrote.


Heather Spiva said...

Oh my ... that's an incredible story. How do you react to that without going into shock?
Especially the part about him being your neighbor!
Thanks for sharing. :)

Kristiana Gregory said...

Yeah, that freaked me out. Not until I heard the street address was I able to put it all together because I'd known him by a nickname, not his full legal name.