Lisa Kimble has been a story teller her entire professional life, first as an Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist and now as a freelance writer for magazines and other publications.
So the Bakersfield, Calif., journalist’s latest venture – offering her services as a writer of obituaries – isn’t as odd a career move as some might think. After all, she’s still writing about everyday folks. The only difference: These life stories have an ending.
The mother of three and wife of Bakersfield attorney Craig Edmonston is hanging out her “shingle” as an obituary writer, launching a company she calls A Life’s Story. (See www.alifesstory.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, Kimble isn’t a morbid or gloomy person. In fact, the Mount St. Mary’s College graduate is warm and upbeat. She’s likely the last person you would cast in the role of a Munster Family member.
“Obituaries are not stories of death. They are stories of life,” Kimble says. “They are rich tapestries woven from the fabric of people’s lives. They are windows through which we can understand how lives were lived. They are opportunities for us to learn wonderful life lessons.”
It is the rare journalist who can escape being assigned to write an occasional obituary. But in recent years, Kimble also has picked up the task of writing obituaries for family and friends who have died.
A few months ago, she received a call from a mortuary asking her to help relatives of two murder victims as they struggled with their profound grief to write an appropriate farewell to their loved ones.
“I began to realize what a big need there is for a professional writer to help families,” she said. “At the time of a death, families are dealing with so many decisions. They often have difficulty thinking clearly. But they want to write something that will be a fitting legacy, a tribute.
“At these times, a professional writer – a neutral, but compassionate person – can guide them through this important task,” said Kimble, calling it a “great honor” to write obituaries.
Obituaries are among the top-read features in most newspapers. Kimble admits obituaries often are the first thing she reads when she picks up her newspaper.
But the art of obituary writing has evolved over many decades. The once flowery tomes of a century ago became choppy formula-written articles, as the assignment fell to rookie reporters, or clerical staffs on many newspapers.
Author Marilyn Johnson in “The Dead Beat” noted that obituaries had a rebirth in the 1980s, when experienced story tellers, such as Kimble, began taking an interest.
In her 2006 book, Johnson writes about Jim Nicholson, an investigative reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News, who began writing obituaries in 1982 to “brighten” the pages of his newspaper.
Mixed in with Nicholson’s obituaries about big newsmakers who had died were stories of “ordinary people whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public,” Johnson wrote. Nicholson offered them up “as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence.”
“Everyone is important,” agreed Kimble, explaining her interest. “Everyone’s story is unique.”
Most of the obituaries we read in the newspaper are written by people left behind to mourn the dead. The authors are mostly family members, who piece together the deceased’s life from their memories and perspectives.
“It is important for people to leave behind information about their lives. Like safe deposit boxes, you are the only one who has the key,” said Kimble, who also envisions helping the “living” prepare obituary information that can be left with their pre-need funeral arrangements.
But at the very least, talk to family members about the important aspects of your life, she said, adding that she has encouraged her own father to assemble his biographical information.
Some people want to have the final word; they want to write their own obituaries. Kimble said a professional writer can help with that, as well.
Self-written obituaries can leave readers with tears in their eyes, or laughing their bellies off. Take, for example, the man who wrote in his 2002 Winston-Salem Journal, N.C., obituary: “I’ve got some bad news for you (besides the fact that I am dead). … just as I had always suspected, God is a Republican.”
Susan Lane, a former New York fashion model, wrote in her 2003 obituary, “Susan was an eternal optimist, an unapologetic liberal and a delightful dinner and party guest. She was never a member of the NRA, or the Republican Party.”
In November, 52-year-old David Allen Palmer wrote touchingly in his Bakersfield Californian obituary about his life that ended when he lost his battle with the “evils” of pancreatic cancer.
Many obituaries do not include the cause of death, opting to focus on the deceased’s life. But Palmer, who worked for Kern County’s Waste Management Department, decided to share that information. However, he devoted most of his obituary to celebrating the life he lived, the friends he cherished and the lessons he learned.
“In lieu of flowers or gifts, those wishing to make any type of contribution may donate to the American Cancer Society on behalf of all people everywhere. Tell them Dave Palmer sent you,” he wrote in an obituary that welled more than a few tears in readers’ eyes.
Some companies prepare obituaries in anticipation of key staffs’ unexpected deaths. However, not all these efforts go smoothly, or are taken seriously. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Bill Janz wrote about being ordered decades ago by a crusty old editor to pen his own obituary in case he croaked.
“I couldn’t decide whether to begin it by saying, ‘The sweetest, nicest person who ever lived died yesterday,’ or be more modest and just say ‘the nicest,’” Janz wrote, recalling that a colleague who covered environmental issues, wrote that he was known “throughout the state for his grasp of sewage.”
In the case of newsmakers who are getting a bit long in the tooth, or who are plagued by health issues, newspapers may prepare obituaries in advance. Knowing these stories are being written, newsmakers often have publicists or representatives supply biographical information, putting their own spin on the obituary.
Obituary writing is receiving so much new attention that a fledgling organization has formed to hone the craft. At www.obitwriters.org, you will find tips on writing obituaries, stories about obituary writers, new technology, such as vobits (video obituaries), and the hilarious blog www.obituaryforum.blogspot.com. Among the postings on the blog is a video of Jon Stewart presenting his RIPpy Awards, which this year honored the most stupid Michael Jackson death stories.
If you really get into this obituary writing thing, you can join the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and attend its 2010 convention in Philadelphia in April. Organizers report the convention will begin with a “kickoff dinner.” That sounds about right.
As for Kimble, she is planning on writing her own obituary – mainly because she is certain those she leaves behind will leave out what she believes are some “important” things.
A version of this story written by Dianne Hardisty was published in The Bakersfield Californian on Jan. 3, 2010.