Bookends: Introduction plus confessions and observations of an obit writer

My life as a journalist began on the obit desk of the Salt Lake Tribune fifty years ago.  Perhaps it should end there too.  Living has transformed me into a more sensitive and intuitive writer than I was at 22, nearing the end of my sophomore year at the University of Utah and about to marry.  Within a year I would be a father. Life was just beginning, but in some ways it had already become serious business.

Cranking out twenty or so summaries each day in triplicate, as rapidly as morticians dictated the facts into my youthful ears, was more convincing than any scripture or Sunday School lesson of the vital message: we live and then we die (In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”). 

The bookends of life were easy enough to see then because they were right in front of me. However, the stinting summaries I wrote each night about ordinary people were about as spare and cold, if not as lyrical, as Genesis: born, parents, schooled, churched, married, divorced, children, survivors, send flowers or donations.   

Obits then were published in agate-size type for the hoi polloi as a free public service by most newspapers of record, like The Trib.  Of course, the lives of the notable dead got full-blown chronologies in 8 point type: more details, quotes from other notables and excerpts from earlier stories supporting the noteworthiness of the recently deceased.

Times have changed.  Families must compile and write the summary, usually at the last minute, then pay for placement. It can cost a thousand dollars or more to publish a substantive sketch of the living that unfolded between the bookends of birth and death.

That’s why I am volunteering to return to the obit desk, literally or virtually. This time around I will find real value in writing profiles of ordinary people who lived well, contributed and died (as we all must). The sketches should go well beyond the saccharin summaries printed for a fee by local newspapers. If I had my way, they would be featured in the regular news sections and on line.  Readers would be inspired by the interesting lives of ordinary folk. It would remind that they too count for something.

Anyway, that’s what I am thinking. How to go about it is a different challenge, but I am sharing this piece with a few people who could open a few doors.  For now the sketches of regular people will appear here  at “Bookends," and, as web crawlers discover them or as you others, on the internet.

Initially, most profiles will be drawn from friends who have passed on.  Here's the back story.

I purposefully lost all contact with most of my high school and college classmates, and other friends from my youth, when I moved to New York City in 1970.  The disconnect endured 40 years.  Yet, when I finally reconnected, I wondered why I distanced myself to begin with. My regret deepened as I read death notices. My regret gave way to reminding some of the living how I remembered them. I am encouraging them to write down how they would like to be remembered by their children and future generations.  We will see how that challenge plays out.

So, I begin with people I knew best: friends since childhood, members of my high school class and a few others.  Although some of the names have been changed, the stories are factual. They are all based on lives of people who were well worth knowing in full.  They are examples of the kinds of profiles I plan to write of extraordinarily ordinary people.