By Christopher B. Daly
An often under-appreciated journalistic form is the humble obituary, known as the obit. The best kind of obit, when well done, is a kind of snap profile. The subject of the ideal profile is a person you did not know when alive but should have — or whom you now wish you had known before it was too late.
These are not to be confused with paid death notices, which are horribly formulaic. (I know, obits can be formulaic too, but I am not talking about those here.) A true obituary, by definition, is a story about a dead person written by a journalist. The best ones convey the news about the timing and manner of death, then go on to tell a story about an interesting life.
I wish to celebrate two obits that appear by coincidence today.
In the Boston Globe, Bryan Marquard salutes the late Sam McCracken — a “character” of the first order. I did not know McCracken despite his many years at Boston University, but now I wish I had.
In the New York Times, the redoubtable Robert D. McFadden opens a world — that of the favored few who not only lived in the apartments at Carnegie Hall but paid almost no rent for the privilege. The occasion is the recent death of another “character,” Editta (cq) Sherman, who made it to age 101.
Either of these obits could have stood on its own as a feature story in either paper. These sorts of efforts renew my faith in the obit, which is under pressure from the hollowing out of newspaper staffs and from the relentless pressure of the Internet. They remind me why we continue to teach our students in journalism schools how to write obits — and why they should want to.