The reaper’s calling card.

Who was it who said, when John Lennon was shot, “It’s always the John Lennons, never the Paul McCartneys.” Can’t recall. But it was only yesterday I read a piece about the Associated Press explaining its practice of keeping prewritten obituaries on file, particularly for “troubled” young celebrities like Britney Spears.

And yet, it’s always the Heath Ledgers, never the Britney Spearses, isn’t it? [Rages; shakes fist at the sky.]

Truth to tell, the fact Ledger left the stage so early isn’t as interesting as the headline on the AP piece: Debate rages over prewritten obituaries for young, living stars. I know from the work I do at night that wire stories on newspaper websites are usually imported from the wire datastream whole, with little editing and, needless to say, no rewriting of the headline. (A little Googling demonstrates the trick for you civilians.) And yet, reading the story, I can find no debate and certainly no raging — who gives a shit whether the AP prewrites obits? Raging debates are one of those things you only find in blog comment sections and in the fantasies of AP copy editors.

Canned obits, as the lead of the story points out, are nothing new and nothing more than a smart use of resources. I took a tour of the New York Times in the way-early ’80s, and that was a big hit with the folks in my group — learning that Princess Grace’s life had already been summed up in 1,500 words and half a dozen pictures before she missed that switchback on the mountain road. How macabre, was the general feeling. How unremarkable was mine.

We had a big obit-updating project in Columbus while I was there, the pet project of some assistant city editor who took it very seriously. Every reporter on the desk was given half a dozen to work on in their spare time, and we were encouraged to pull out the stops, to interview the still-living subjects for fresh quotes. But — and this struck me as fairly stupid — we were told not to reveal what we were working on unless it was absolutely necessary. The memo offered a suggested code phrase: “I’d like to interview you for a general biographical piece to run on an undetermined date in the future.” This fan dance was necessary for fear that some subjects may not have accepted the idea that one day they’d go the way of all flesh, and might refuse out of fear or superstition. Oh, please. Most people figured it out immediately, and I don’t think one got cold chills over it. I don’t even remember who my subjects were, but my friend Ted drew Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force officer who never met a landscape he’d mind bombing back to the Stone Age (as he famously said of North Vietnam). Ted asked him about that quote; as I recall, he suggested it had been taken out of context.

I subsequently learned that the character of Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove” was based on LeMay. I wonder if that made the obit.

Ledger is a loss, no doubt; I thought his performance in “Brokeback Mountain” was a thing of beauty, particularly how he inhabited the character physically. With his long legs and lean frame, he looked born to spend his life in a saddle. He carried the tension of his forbidden feelings in his shoulders, and you could see every striation on the knotted muscles there.

However, as someone said to me yesterday, someone who was having their 30th birthday yesterday, in fact: “I knew I was 30 when I was more concerned about the Federal Reserve than Heath Ledger.” Amen.

So, bloggage:

Farewell, Fred Thompson. Don’t feel bad: “Law & Order” residuals pay better, and you get a nice trailer to relax in between takes. Slate’s John Dickerson points out the obvious:

…(F)rom the start, Thompson seemed to be stuck in a state of repose. His announcement in Iowa, held before an imposing set of columns and faux stone that looked like the facade of a small bank, stirred little more excitement than if he’d been offering free checking. More lounge-worthy moments followed. At Florida’s state GOP convention, where candidates had to pay for time before the crowd of 4,000, Thompson’s rivals gave passionate speeches. Thompson spoke for a lean and uninspiring five minutes. The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing.

On trial for killing your 7-year-old daughter? Go ahead, introduce that “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug into evidence. I’m sure the jury will be swayed.

Off to the shower. Someone stop by and scrub my back.

Posted at 9:46 am in Current events, Media |

41 responses to “The reaper’s calling card.”

  1. Dorothy said on January 23, 2008 at 10:30 am

    It makes perfect and logical sense to keep obits on file for celebrities. Better to be prepared than clamor at the last minute, risking getting the information wrong.

    All of you newspaper types are probably familiar with this kind of example I’m going to give. But it was new (and funny) to me when my daughter first told me about this.

    After she started as a copy editor at the Virginian-Pilot, one night someone remarked what a quiet evening it had been, and how fast they were getting done, and hey – maybe we can get out of here a half hour early? Then someone else said “Shhhhh! Gerald Ford might hear you!” Of course now that Jerry has departed this world, they probably substitute another name of someone on the verge of keeling over. The reference being, of course, that if it hit the wires that someone famous had passed away, they’d have to stay and change the paper somewhat to include the story. (Maybe I’m stating the obvious here and if so, I apologize.)

    Wonder whose name they’d put in that statement these days?

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  2. Kirk said on January 23, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Around here at the Columbus Dispatch, the late crew would say something along the lines of “We’re done unless Woody Hayes dies.”

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  3. nancy said on January 23, 2008 at 10:38 am

    You should be there when someone famous is taking a long time to die. Yasser Arafat, for example. In news meetings, the wire editor would say, day after day, some version of, “Arafat is expected to die today.” Before long we’d be making jokes about it — I mean, it is an absurd situation, trying to figure out how long you hold Page One open for him. And then the jokes get rougher, until finally, when he does expire, there’s everything short of a standing ovation and party hats.

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  4. brian stouder said on January 23, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Fidel Castro is a twofer or a threefer waiting to happen; his demise will get the front page, and it gives an opportunity for features with pics of JFK, and long think-pieces for the pundits

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  5. Kevin Knuth said on January 23, 2008 at 10:42 am

    In regards to Fred Thompson-

    Jim Shella (an Indianapolis political reporter) had this on his blog today:

    “Fred Thompson’s departure from the Presidential race means nothing to Indiana voters. Thompson won’t even be on the ballot for the May Indiana primary.

    The Thompson campaign never did what it takes to gain ballot access here. It didn’t name a state chairman and it made no effort to collect the necessary petition signatures.

    Former State GOP Chairmen Mike McDaniel and Rex Early raised $95,000 for the Thompson campaign and volunteered to lead its local effort but McDaniel says a half dozen phone calls went unanswered. “I was working at it harder than he was,” is McDaniel’s take.”

    Back to my opinion:
    The funniest part of this to me is that last Friday I heard Rush Limbaugh state how certain he was that Thompson would WIN South Carolina…..oooops!

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  6. brian stouder said on January 23, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Thompson can claim “Mission: Accomplished”, though since his job seemed to be to guard McCain’s right flank – which Thompson did (Hucka-has-been)

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  7. Mindy said on January 23, 2008 at 11:00 am

    I recall the mention of the Queen Mother on this topic once upon a time, how her canned obit was discarded periodically in favor of a rewrite that in turn gathered dust for years.

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  8. Dorothy said on January 23, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Oh the Queen herself would certainly stop the presses.

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  9. Jeff said on January 23, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Thompson really, really looks like a stalking horse from start to finish, but i can’t do the “cui bono?” on this one. The Indiana ballot thing is kind of indicative; no effort at all? Really? If there are major players in the GOP who wanted to keep Huckabee’s numbers down, the Thompson campaign might have been a good deal — cheep at twice the price.

    And that coffee mug story: “Paging Bob Greene; Mr. Greene, call your office; paging Bob Greene to the courtesy desk . . .”

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  10. Sue said on January 23, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I knew you were going to write about the Britney pre-obit, Nancy! I love the whole “shocked, SHOCKED” aspect that reporters keep trying to push. Does anyone remember the Mary Tyler Moore episode where she brought obits home to update and ended up rewriting one with Rhoda that was outrageous and hilarious? Then, of course, the subject dies and somehow clueless Ted reads the wrong obit on the air in its entirety. That’s where I first heard of this practice; even as I was laughing I was thinking, “well, yeah, that makes sense”. And regarding the “raging debates in blog comment sections”, to whom might you be referring? Gosh, I thought we all got along pretty well.

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  11. Danny said on January 23, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Shut up, Sue. There’s no fighting allowed in the war room.

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  12. Sue said on January 23, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    The good thing about webspace raging debates is that when you think of a witty and cutting response at 3 a.m., you can still toss it out there. I’ll get back to you, Danny.

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  13. nancy said on January 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I never saw that MTM episode, but that’s about the only thing worth debating — how secure do you make the obit database, so that they can be gotten to quickly when they’re needed, but won’t accidentally make their way out before the bucket is kicked.

    As I recall, one of the wire services, or maybe it was a cable-news website, got some coding screwed up and accidentally published Dick Cheney’s farewell. The usual right-wing paranoia ensued, when truth to tell, even if Cheney were 42 and with the heart of Lance Armstrong, they’d still have one in the can for a sitting vice president.

    Back in the hard-copy days, you’d see the stories filed in the library (aka the morgue, ha ha) with giant all-cap warnings at the top: PREPARED OBIT DO NOT RUN UNTIL SUBJECT IS DEAD PLEASE GET MANAGEMENT OK, etc., and even then, every so often you see big stupid mistakes in them that came from either not being updated or read carefully first. The usual one: Joe Somebody, who rose to fame as the first man to do something really important, died today. “He was XX.”

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  14. Jeff said on January 23, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I’m home packing for a trip, and there’s this deranged bald man with a goatee raving that “this is a great time to buy stock.” Does he mean cattle, or horses, or what exactly? And why is he so agitated?

    Let’s just hope it isn’t some kind of hostage crisis at a TV studio where they had to give the poor loon airtime so he releases his captives.

    He doesn’t look like a cattleman, really . . .

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  15. Jen said on January 23, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    That story about prewritten obits was the first thing I thought of when I heard that Heath Ledger had died. That’s the second under-30 celeb to die in the past couple of weeks, with Brad Renfrow dying at age 25. Crazy.

    I liked the last quote in that story: “Who in the ’60s,” Thurber asked, “would have thought Keith Richards would have outlasted John Denver?”

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  16. Dorothy said on January 23, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Jeff I think that deranged bald man with a goatee is probably this guy, Jim Cramer:

    He’s actually got his head on pretty straight when he’s not ranting. I think it’s his shtick. We see him on the TODAY show most mornings. What he says makes sense very often.

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  17. Jeff said on January 23, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    No, just kidding, Danny; he does make sense i suppose, but he’s got quite a caffeine load on today . . . i get the argument that a big bear market creates buying opportunities, but it’s fairly academic to folks like me, so i couldn’t resist a bit o’ mockery.

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  18. Danny said on January 23, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    No, just kidding, Danny

    Ah, what did I do?

    Dorothy, how many times have I had to ask you now not to post here wearing that Danny mask. It’s only for Halloween. To scare kids.

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  19. LAMary said on January 23, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    How about Wiki obits? That could be interesting.

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  20. Dorothy said on January 23, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    This is not the first time people have confused you and me in the comments, Danny Boy. Me thinks YOU are wearing the Dorothy mask!! Or maybe you should just stop using my shade of lipstick?!?!

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  21. brian stouder said on January 23, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    What would the reaper’s business card say?

    Something like:


    Private Contractor

    [logo – stylized scythe – like the Nike swoosh]

    24 hour service

    “If you don’t love our heavenly service, then to hell with you!”

    call toll free 800-ALL GONE ( or better yet, don’t call us – we’ll call you!)

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  22. Danny said on January 23, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Or maybe you should just stop using my shade of lipstick?!?!

    But it makes me feel pretty…{smooooch}

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  23. SusanG said on January 23, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    A professor at IUPUI, turned mini/local/feminist celebrity had terminal cancer. Ever organized, and putting her affairs in order, she contacted the Star, making sure her obit was accurate and up-to-date. They wanted an interview. Her response? “Of course not, I’m dying of cancer.”

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  24. john c said on January 23, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Speaking of folks who take a long time to go … Harry Caray was in the hospital for, as I recall it, several days. Needless to say in Chicago we had not just an obit, but a full package. We also had a secret source in the hospital room and my job, when we got the word, was to put the call in to the family. On the final day we kept hearing the end was near, but deadline was approaching. The newsroom was in a high state, with reporters stationed at Wrigley, and at various taverns around town. And I sat at my desk, waiting for the word. Finally and editor hustled over to my desk and gave me the nod, as various other folks sprang into action. “We don’t have much time,” he said. “Get some quotes. Get them in and ship it.” I was dialing before he finished, and someone answered quickly. “This is John Carpenter, from the Sun-Times. I’m very, very sorry to call at this time but we’ve just heard the news.”
    “What news?”
    “Ah – haminahaminahamina.”
    Seeing as how all I had was an editor’s nod based on some source I did not know, I instantly decided that I was not going to be the one to inform, possibly incorrectly, whatever family member I was talking to, that Harry had died.
    “Um, that Harry is not doing well,” I stumbled. She was polite, and said something like, thanks, we have nothing to say right now. And I hung up.
    Turns out we were right. Just too quick. But it was one of my most awkward moments … and my best canned obit story.

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  25. ashley said on January 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Damn, John. What an abysmal task to have to perform. Glad you did what you did.

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  26. Danny said on January 23, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Wow, John. Good recovery. Weird work day, no doubt.

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  27. nancy said on January 23, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Being the bearer of that particular bad news happens more than you think. One of my colleagues knocked on the door of a family whose loved one had recently been found in pieces dumped in a rural shithole somewhere. He arrived just as they were getting home, and were examining the police detective’s business card that had been stuck in the door frame and wondering what might be up. Suddenly, here’s a reporter, too. It’s different when you’re standing there in person and the family is saying, “What news?”

    He told them as gently as he could. Now that’s a bad day at the office.

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  28. john c said on January 23, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Bad day indeed. I had a boss who was once working a disappearance. Word came that the girl had been found alive, and he hightailed it to the house only to find out he’d been beaten there by a TV reporter, who was happily sharing the news with the mother and father, who hadn’t heard yet. Just then the detectives came in and took the parents into a bedroom. The wails and sobs told everyone the news was the opposite. The girl had been found dead.
    As Nancy or anyone whose been in the business will tell you, the hardest moments are those sitting in the car, getting up the nerve to go knock on the door. I’ve done it probably a hundred times, which meant both that I was a cop reporter and that I must have been good at it. Don’t know if I should be proud of that. I suppose I am.
    Often times people are glad to talk about their loved one. That, in fact, is the key. You don’t say: “How did you feel when you heard your son didn’t make it around dead man’s curve?” You apologize up and down, and say that obviously the paper is doing a story and you’d like to be able to tell people about who Johnny was. “Tell me about your son.” works a lot better than “Tell me how much it sucks to find out your son just died.”
    I’m sure more than a few people thought I was a loathesome media snake for knocking on their doors, which were quickly shut in my face. But I know for a fact many others were thankful to be able to talk about their loved ones. I have sat on sofas, poring over family photo albums looking for just the right one for the paper. That’s a powerful moment to share with someone. Until I left Chicago in 2000, I regularly got calls from a man whose son had been murdered in 1989.
    The closest I ever came to losing it came in 1995. I spent the better part of two days wandering around the hinterlands of Chicago tracking down families of children who were killed when their school bus was hit by a train going 79 miles per hour. I was set to be married in a few days and kept telling my boss that. But he kept asking me to stay, that we were getting good stuff, which we were. And it was a huge story, as you might imagine. Finally I pulled up to yet another house and caught the dad as he was walking out to his car. We were talking quietly and he was telling me about his son – begrudgingly to be sure. But he was really telling me about the kid. Just then another reporter pulled up, walked up the driveway and listened in for a bit. Then, in a pause, he said: “How did it feel when you got the news?” The dad looked at him and said: “How the F@#k do you think it felt?!” I flipped my notebook shut, told him I was sorry and walked away. I got in my car, fed the desk my notes and told them I was done, that I was headed to Indiana to get married.
    Phew. Long post. But I haven’t told that story in a while. Sorry to bore you. Nancy will tell you. We all have stories like that.

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  29. Danny said on January 23, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    John, I’m sure your reporting and writing are good, but I really liked your remake of “The Thing.” How was it working Kurt Russell?

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  30. Sue said on January 23, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    John c: What do you think about relatives and friends appearing on TV shortly after a tragedy? Can you read anything other than sincerity when you see these appearances? I don’t mean to sound harsh, but when I see someone in front of a roadside memorial singing “Amazing Grace” for the benefit of a reporter it kind of turns my stomach. I’m not talking about a family that speaks through a designated relative in front of a home, but the sofa-full of people type of appearances on GMA or the Today Show. It happens so often I can’t figure out if it’s honest grief or a 15 minutes of fame thing. It almost always bothers me, and I don’t know if it’s my own cynicism that’s the actual problem.

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  31. john c said on January 23, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    I’m with you Sue, though it’s a hard thing to talk about. I wouldn’t want to judge someone for how they behave in such a state. But when I was in Chicago and covering all manner of street crime, I remember getting a very uncomfortable feeling a few times that family members were almost playing a part in a well-rehearsed made-for-tv drama. The unthinkable had happened to them, just like they had seen it happen to other poor family members of other teenage boys, so they felt that, when the TV lights turned on, they were supposed to recite certain lines. Again, I would never say it to them. There but for the grace of God … But it’s a strange feeling to see in person, especially when you are a lowly print guy standing there in the cold with just a notebook, behind all the lights and gear.
    You also can get very cynical. You feel for a grieving mom. But you want to shake her and ask why her 12 year-old was on a street corner at 3 a.m..
    It’s a grim job, to be sure. I’m reminded of the great Harry Dean Stanton scene in Repo Man: “Tense situations kid! Most people spend their lives trying to avoid tense situations. Repo man tries to GET INTO tense situations!”

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  32. alex said on January 23, 2008 at 8:19 pm


    This is where I’m often torn. I’m a huge fan of Mary Mitchell, who confronts us with the things nobody wants to see as regards race relations in America and as regards what happens to people who grow up in the underclass.

    Most of our social policy (read GOP) is formulated with the idea that everyone aspires to middle-class values. This of course comes from people who don’t know anything different and cannot empathize with anything different.

    That’s a columnist whom I wish were more widely read because she’s obviously cognizant of the divide and how people talk past each other because neither appreciates the other’s position.

    I took issue with her exactly once. On the issue of reparations (when Alderman Hairston said she wanted her forty acres and a Lexus). As a fag, I had to write her back and say, in true Chicago style, “Where the fuck is mine?

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  33. basset said on January 23, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Worst it ever got for me was when a soldier at Fort Campbell, the big army base outside Nashville, drowned a toddler in his trailer bathtub. Kid’s mother was a friend of the soldier’s wife, and they took the boy in while mom went back to school and tried to get her life together after various problems.

    Came out at the trial that this miserable piece of shit had been abusing the kid all along, throwing shoes at him when he peeked into the room at the wrong time, constantly yelling at him, hitting him, you know the drill.

    So, finally, the kid soils his pants one night and soldier boy takes him into the bathroom, runs some water in the tub, and shoves him in with orders to clean up. Of course whatever he does is not good enough, so soldier slaps him around a little and holds him under to teach him a lesson. Wife testified later how the kid struggled, soldier just got angrier, and finally the boy wasn’t moving any more.

    Couple of days later we’re on the interview-the-neighbors mission and I go knock on the trailer door. Wife’s mother is there, blind drunk at about ten in the morning, cussing and complaining about all the fuss over one damn little kid. She won’t let the camera inside but I can come in, c’mon, ah’ll show ya, wass all dis about anyway.

    So she leads me to the bathroom, shows me the tub, walks me down the trailer hallway and points to the bed the kid was put on after he was killed. On the wall right over it is one of those Seventies posters we’ve all seen, can’t remember the exact words but it’s a child’s plea to his parents, guide me up the way I should go, take care of me because I love you, be a good example to me because I look up to you, you know the one I mean, and it’s maybe two feet from where this kid’s fresh corpse was dropped after soldier got through with him.

    Somehow we got out of there. We had some sound with grandma from when she first opened the door, got some more from a neighbor or two, drove back, put the piece together, I may have gone on the set to front it, I don’t remember.

    What I do remember is getting home after my son had gone to bed, then and now my only child and about the age of the one who was drowned.

    And going into his room, quietly.

    And standing over him, watching him sleep.

    And not being able to talk or move or even breathe all that well for I don’t know how long.

    The boy’s eighteen now and it still gets to me.

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  34. brian stouder said on January 23, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Basset – that would be about unbearable. I could never be a first responder, nor a crime reporter; too much human wreckage.

    A few years ago, Pam and I went to the funeral of a friend’s infant; the four month old baby was shaken to death by his daycare provider.

    The funeral was almost literally a waking nightmare; the church was brand new, and you could smell the new carpet and new wood and new paint. We went down a long corridor, and turned into a large class room, which was a pleasing yellow, with sunlight streaming in through the big windows, and the strikingly small casket was open, over near the windows. The sight was all but unbearable; nonetheless we approached the stricken parents and gazed at the remains of their beautiful, pink baby.

    Finally, we eased out of that room, and back down the corridor, and into the santuary, where we selected a seat near the back. That’s when I noticed the reporter from the Indianapolis Star, also sitting unobtrusively near the back, by herself. I remember that when they brought the little casket into the sanctuary and began the service, the music consisted of children’s songs (including Jesus Loves Me, This I Know), and we all cried.

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  35. john c said on January 23, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Alex … I like Mary as well. The times I don’t agree with her are usually the times I think she’s just carrying the flag for her side, as opposed to saying what’s really on her mind. But that’s true of a lot of columnists. She’s a wonderful woman, though.
    bassett … that’s some heavy stuff. The worst child abuse stuff I came across was in trials, when I was covering courts. Still one of the best ledes I’ve ever read came from my friend Tony Gordon, in the case of a kid who’d been mercilessly abused. After the medical examiner got on the stand and documented a laundry list of injuries inflicted over a long period of time, Tony wrote something like: “Finally on February such and such, little so and so did the only thing he could to stop the relentless abuse at the hands of so-and-so.
    He died.”

    How about turning this all around to a feel-good from the world of canned obits? Not long after I got married I was wasting time, er, poking around the Sun-Times’ pre-written obit file. I read Sis Daley’s. She was the mother of the mayor, wife of the former mayor. In it was the little detail that her husband told her he loved her every single day of their marriage. Say what you will about the old man – and his son. But that stuck with this newlywed.

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  36. Jeff said on January 23, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Apologies to Danny, or maybe Dorothy, or . . . anyhow, never comment in a hurry.

    Nor will i on this, but i’ll call trump on number of times having to tell folks bad news, and the fact of the matter is that most people feel that there’s a script, somewhere, and they’re just desperately trying to find their place without shouting “Line” to the Stage Manager, who is often obtusely silent at such times.

    The first few, few dozen times even, you can feel a certain disconnect — what are these people thinking? Why are they aping the soap opera conventions?

    God grant you get to a point where you realize that your own tendencies in delivering bad news are . . . to follow a script, one you don’t even know that you’d picked up and memorized. Most of us, in most social circumstances, have a sort of script that we vaguely follow “Hi-how are ya-fine, you?-oh, great; the kids?-yeah, driving me crazy-oh, ain’t it the way.”

    The best care you can offer in a time like that is a relaxed presence and a hand on an arm or a hug if that’s called for (often, you’ll be working on not staggering backwards from the impact of their hug, and if the person doesn’t want that kind of support, you’ll know if you’re not an idiot). When you let people know by your interest (as John C. said so well) that you’re willing to hear whatever story they need to tell, they’ll have one, and if it starts out sounding like a warmed-over soap opera script summary from the Saturday paper, don’t be surprised. Nod. Say “uh-huh” a lot. You’ll either get to the real, heartfelt story, or you’ll soon sense (if you’re not an idiot) that it’s time to leave.

    You don’t ever get good at it, thank God, but you can learn to do as little extra harm in such moments as is possible, and open a door for healing on down the road. Cops, reporters, pastors, family and friends — you can be an idiot, or you can learn to listen, and the two types are easy to identify.

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  37. john c said on January 24, 2008 at 8:06 am

    Well said, Brian. One piece of pre-advice I can offer for anyone who finds themselves in this situation – or finds they have a friend in it – is that having an impromptu “spokesperson” is a lifesaver. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a call, gotten an aunt or an uncle who tells me the mom or dad or husband or wife can’t come to the phone. But that person is able to give me enough details to make the victim in the story a real person, or to maybe piece together some parts of the puzzle that are missing – and to keep an editor from ordering me to go stake out the house and wait for the parents. TV has far more demands. But they will also back off if fed something from somebody meaningful.

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  38. Kim said on January 24, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Great posts, all. Right after I moved from Chicago my sister’s sister-in-law and a friend were killed in a house fire. Probably a Sunday night in January, so it was prime for Monday a.m. TV and print. My sister was freaking out over all the reporters camped out in front of the house; I told her she needed to either be or find a spokesperson and either give one written statement or decline and ask them to leave. She did, but was surprised at what a pack of jackals they were. “Welcome to my world,” I told her.

    I echo what John C says about people wanting to have the opportunity to say something, one last thing. For most, the tragic news obit is the only time they’ll be in the paper without paying for it. And if the deceased was in the paper for whatever “good news” reason you can bet the family will show you the clip. Most times I felt like a therapist, except I could never leave those feelings at the job.

    The worst stories were the ones where teens died. The funerals and services had all these kids, usually in what they thought passed for dress-up clothes – just-short of prom dresses topped with bomber jackets if wintertime, that sort of thing. It was such a great illustration of how they did not get what was happening, appropriate as they were so young.

    I may have told this story before, so apologies. But the most horrifying experience I ever had was late at night in the newsroom when I did a brief stint on the desk. The night cops reporter was calling someone and, in his very loud voice, said, “Yeah, it’s name redacted just calling to let you know they found her and wondering what you’re feeling about it.” Pause while the person on the other end responds, apparently happy because “they found her.” Name redacted, again loudly, says, “No, no. She’s dead. They found her in a Dumpster.”

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  39. brian stouder said on January 24, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Everybody here at nn.c (and most especially the proprietress) could have predicted this:

    The only hope would have been that the media not give them the bright lights until they actually show up, but alas –

    “He (Heath Ledger) got on that big screen with a big, fat message: God is a liar and it’s OK to be gay,” said Shirley Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of the actor’s role in “Brokeback Mountain.” The radical religious group plans to protest Ledger’s funeral.

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  40. alex said on January 24, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I say let ’em. The Westboro Baptist Church and its antics are the best thing that ever happened to gay people. A gift from God, they are. Truly.

    They put the ugliest possible face on homophobia, and what’s more, on those who would purport to speak for God. They’re doing wonderful work.

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  41. Kim said on January 24, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Protest his funeral? They should be elated! If they are True Believers Heath is headed to the hot place for his gay-promotin’ ways. These people are just plain nuts. The only ones worse are the media for rolling out their notebooks for dictation.

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