Writing somebody’s life story

Journalism, Obituary, Reporting

How can you summarise the life of a human being, in a way that’s both interesting and respectful?

That’s one of the challenges facing an obituary writer. And probably the first thing to accept is that it’s impossible to do it perfectly. I mean, a whole life!

This week, I was invited to write an obituary for The Times.

I’ve attached the finished story as a PDF (below), and thought it might be useful to describe how I went about researching and writing it.

First, obviously (?) I Googled him.

There wasn’t a lot to be found, apart from stories about the business he founded, a restaurant, and the many famous people who ate there – this particular restaurant was a bit of a legend.

I looked for contact details for some of those famous people. These included “celebrities” and also people famous within the world of restaurants and hospitality.

Wherever possible, I used the phone. In some cases, I couldn’t find a number so I sent an email.

Surprisingly quickly, these busy people got back to me. One close relative, whom I had not wanted to approach directly, surprised me by phoning while I was cleaning my bookshelves. I dropped everything and dashed into my office to take scribbled notes on a pad of A4 narrow-lined paper.

Later, walking back from the supermarket, I got a call from a close family friend who is also a well-known actress. I walked into a nearby cemetery to get away from traffic noise, and left a message suggesting a time to speak the following day.

My deadline was approaching, and I feared I hadn’t enough (this fear looms over every writing assignment, of course, but it’s not merely an illusion: it can be well founded). The close relative had spoken movingly, but gave little in the way of anecdote – and in writing the obituary I couldn’t just list a person’s attributes. I needed stories.

Happily, a few hours later, an actor called me and gave me lots of stories. Quite a few were not relevant, or insufficient to convey the magnitude of a man’s life, and professional achievements. But they were a start.

The following day – less than 24 hours before my deadline – a well known figure in the restaurant industry telephoned me. His insights were fresh and his stories were rich with specifics (rather than generalisations), and no less entertaining than the actor’s.

Additionally, he forwarded to me some memories from another former colleague, written to help in preparing the eulogy. I asked him to to confirm that I was free to use this, which he did.

I started typing.

Having been writing for a long time, I don’t tend to plan very much. I follow my instincts. And I’ve written a lot of obituaries over the years, so I’m broadly familiar with the structure required.

The opening must establish why this person is interesting, and worth knowing about. That’s particularly important if the subject is not a household name – but even the most famous people need to be put into context – “He was the first prime minister to do X”, or “She never won an Oscar, but is credited with making that possible for other women” , or whatever.

From then on, the obituary should reveal the person’s character, gifts and perhaps also foibles through stories. If it’s for The Times, the writer should not attempt to sound like him/herself but as the impersonal voice of the newspaper itself.

Similarly, quotes should be kept to a minimum. Stories supplied by relatives, friends and former colleagues are paraphrased.

Towards the end the obituary sets out essentials relating to birth, family, and death.

Ideally, all these things are handled with some artistry, so that the reader’s interest is sustained.

I finished the piece in good time, and sent it by email. The editor replied with satisfaction, and a couple of questions about missing facts. I asked the close relative to fill me in.

When the obituary came out, it was substantially as I’d written it. The only significant change was the removal of multiple references to the people I had spoken to. The effect was to minimise any sense that they had contributed to the obit – a good bit of editing, for which I’m grateful.

You can open a PDF of the obit (and download or print it), here: