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The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi With Her Bare Hands and What We Can Learn From Other Amazing Obituaries



In an ideal world I’d read the newspaper everyday cover-to-cover but on those frequent time crunched mornings, I’ll scan the major headlines and then go straight to the obituary page. I see the obit page as a mini non-fiction book where I can learn about so many extraordinary people in such a short amount of time.

In 2012 The New York Times ran 30 obituaries on the front page, more than double over the year before. William McDonald, the Times Obituary editor said, “Obituaries are essentially journalistic profiles that open windows onto the recent past.” Well-written obituaries are so popular that The New York Times releases a book each year containing its best recent obits. Last year’s book was brilliantly titled “The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands and 143 Other Fascinating People Who Died This Past Year: The Best of the New York Times Obituaries, 2013.” (Read about that socialite here.) 

So what makes a great obituary? (Hint: Nazi-hunters, nuclear physicists and popular celebrities aren’t the only ones to receive well-written obits.)

  • Colorful details: An obituary for a Mississippi man named Harry Stamps went viral last spring because his daughter, who wrote the piece, decided to forgo the traditional obit and write something that paints a touching and funny picture of her dad. Stamps loved a “martini glass filled with buttermilk, garnished with a chunk of cornbread” and “his signature everyday look was all his: A plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom.” I didn’t know Harry, but I think I would have liked him.
  • More feelings, Less Facts: The recent death of former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan prompted many poignant tributes including one from his friend and colleague Phillip Weiss who wrote, “The feeling he cultivated in everyone he worked with was that we needed him, that he saw the very best inside us. He would close the door and make you feel like the most important person in the world.” These shorter tributes to Kaplan on Twitter were also all about feeling, less about fact.
  • Everyone is interesting and everyone has a story: Maclean’s, the Canadian magazine, has a regular section called The End, which features obituaries for everyday, extraordinary people who may have lived quieter or less well-known lives but are nonetheless fascinating to read about. I’d love to see more features like this in national publications. 

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