To me, one of the most desirable jobs in newspapers has always been in the obituary department. Blame it on my taste for the epic, but it seems like the act and art of summarizing great lives would put you a little closer to a sense of what all this quotidian nonsense of life adds up to. (I would put astronomers and entomologists in the same category). So I thought Jon Thurber, the obituary editor from the Los Angeles Times for over a decade, would be the perfect person for Under God to talk to about life and death and how it all works.
While I was at the LA Times, one of the people I probably disappointed the most was Jon. I had been covering a certain octagenarian TV producer accused of sexually harassing his home nurse, and Jon asked me to put a few facts together on the man, given his age. Then Jon asked again. And again. But I kept writing dailies and thinking if the guy had lived this long, he would surely live a few more weeks.
Of course, one evening I left the paper and went for a massage. A blissful hour later, I emerged to my cell phone on fire with weary messages from Jon. The producer had died. That put the fear in me and I got to work on an obituary of a certain female Hollywood titan that was alive and well but who Jon thought maybe should have a file going. I called the woman and told her flat out what I was up to. She told me to go to hell. A few weeks later, I quit.
Anyway, here’s Jon:
ME: How do you apply your sense of your religion or your faith or your lack thereof to the work you do?
JON: While I don’t really adhere to any of the major religions, I’m also more interested in religion than ever before. I find myself reading more about Buddhism than anything else and I’m curious about what people believe and why they believe it.
Religion or ethics or morality comes up in some subtle ways in our work. For instance, many readers take the “speak no ill of the dead” route and criticize us if our obituaries read like anything less than a eulogy one might hear in a church. I’m continually reminding folks who call or e-mail to complain that we are not in the business of eulogizing the dead. We are in the business of writing accurate news stories on the death of someone who made news in some substantial way during their lifetime.
We focus on newsmaker obituaries at the Los Angeles Times. But we also receive anywhere from 10-15 submissions a day asking us to memorialize a loved one who had no great connection to the news. I am continually surprised at how many people equate a newspaper obituary as a validation of the worth of some person’s life. And I have to continually point out to people that the bar is rather high for a news obituary in the Times and that due to space and staffing limitations we cannot possibly handle all the requests that come in to us. I also tell them a newspaper’s decision whether or not to run an obituary should not be a deciding factor in determining the value of a person’s life or career.
But we get quite a bit of anger directed at us when we reject a submission. And I suspect this is because it far easier to be angry at the obituary editor than it is at Death or God.
ME: How has writing obituaries affected your sense of death? Of the divine? Of fate? Of chaos?
JON: I’m surprised by the seeming randomness of mortality. Otherwise healthy people go into a hospital for minor elective surgeries, develop infections and don’t come out. We ran a piece recently about a USC medical professor and internationally known specialist in urologic cancers and bladder reconstruction. A robust and active man, he spent a difficult weekend traveling to Florida for a medical convention, became ill while at the convention and was taken to a local hospital where he died of what seemed to be a massive infection. He was 45. His colleagues, patients and former patients were just devastated.
ME: It’s been in the news lately that the AP and others have started doing a lot of pre-obits for young Hollywood. How do you decide it’s time to get something on paper for somebody? Do you, Jon, have a 6th sense?
JON: I generally don’t get into the mortality guessing game for “young Hollywood.” A few years ago Robert Downey Jr. and Courtney Love were the poster children for excessive living and many had the cynical view that they wouldn’t live to old age. But they seem to have either straightened out their lives or found ways to keep their names out of the news media. I find the focus on the Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan’s a bit morbid, like waiting for a train wreck.
My colleagues and I are always working on advance obits and generally try to confine ourselves to those we know to have health issues or are closer to mortality on the actuarial tables. And while we have an advance biographical file of nearly 400 pieces, it is virtually impossible to be prepared for every newsworthy death that comes along.
There is something interesting about working on obits of older Hollywood figures, however. Seemingly thoughtful performers who have impact outside the movie industry in politics or social issues are still reluctant to talk or allow friends to talk for an advance obituary. I had trouble figuring this out the first few years I was doing this job and then it occurred to me that at any age the goal in Hollywood is still to get work. Actors of a certain age don’t get work if they are rumored to be ill. Their prospects would further plummet if word got out that someone was writing their advance obituary.
I think generations ago there was bit more acceptance and recognition of the inevitability of death. Alden Whitman, the legendary New York Times obituary writer of a half-century ago used to routinely visit newsmakers for the pre-obituary interview. Apparently, very few people of high station refused his invitation to talk about their lives. I keep wondering what kind of success he would have in this era with its marked denial of death.
ME: Are you more or less superstitious since you’ve been doing obituaries?
JON: Probably more. I’m very careful about who I’m thinking about. Too many coincidences. I was at a dinner party some years ago and folks were asking me who I was worried about in terms of mortality. This is a popular question for anyone writing or editing obituaries. Folks asking the question want to know who the next “Big One” will be. I made some flip answer about being concerned about Katharine Hepburn, who most everyone knew to be in failing health. The next day she died.
On another occasion I was driving to work and I found myself thinking about Ted Williams for no apparent reason. A couple of hours later the wires reported his death. Very strange.
ME: Are there rules for writing about a dead person’s faith or lack thereof?
JON: We generally don’t dwell on a person’s religion unless it is a vital factor in the story.
ME: How often, if ever, does God come up in the obit department?
JON: Rarely. We try to separate church and state.
ME: What do you know about death that we don’t?
JON: You can’t take it back to Target for a full refund or store credit.