Friday: Writing The Headline To A Person’s Life

This Oct. 26, 2009 file photo shows the the Chicago Sun-Times building in Chicago.
Kiichiro Sato / AP Photo
This Oct. 26, 2009 file photo shows the the Chicago Sun-Times building in Chicago.
Kiichiro Sato / AP Photo

Friday: Writing The Headline To A Person’s Life

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Someone’s obituary is dependent on the right details and the hand of a skillful writer, of course. But first you have to entice them to read the story. Mastering the headline is just as important. Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell tells us how she finds the right words, what she digs up in the paper’s archive, and how she’s captured so much of Chicago history in her obits. We also go to the phones to hear from listeners about what they imagine their obit headline would be.

For example, here’s what Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia says will be his obit headline: “Tony Sarabia, Longtime Public Radio Host And Father of 3 Sons Who Turned To Goat Farming in Later Years, Dead at 97.”

Here are some highlights from Sarabia’s conversation with O’Donnell.

On what makes a good headline

Maureen O’Donnell: You’ve got space limitations. Every letter counts; it’s even tighter than a tweet. We always get in their name, their age, and you got to say that they died. But then you have a few words to say why they’re important, and you want something kind of eye-catching. You don’t want, “John Doe, 95, Family Man.” You want to say, “John Doe, Homburg Hat Inventor, Dies at 95.”

On daily challenges

O’Donnell: The battle with the clock. You’re always trying to find out as much as you can about the person, talk to as many people as you can, grab all the old article you can, and sort of infuse it with — how do I find the essence of this person? How do I share with our readers maybe a little history lesson about the past, about, say, World War II, about women’s fashion? How do I do all of that before that damn clock movies again?

Tony Sarabia: Are there any scenarios where you find yourself losing your cool?

O’Donnell: Margalit Fox, The New York Times obit writer, said in the Obit. documentary, “I fight panic down every day.” And I think that’s true, not only for obituary writers, but for many journalist. And the deadline is constant now because we’re all getting it online.

On becoming an obituary writer

O’Donnell: When our former obituary writer was retiring, I actually went in and asked for the job. I’m so grateful that the Sun-Times gave it to me. I love it. I feel like I get a history lesson every day and I’m able to share it with our readers. Part of the reason I asked for the job was I thought, “Well, I’ll probably be able to get off on time” — because I have a family.

But the wonderful thing is obituaries get a little space. The stories can breathe a little, and you can really tell a tale.

I think obits are having a moment. We’ve got the documentary Obit., people are writing compilations of their obituaries, and there are all kinds of Facebook pages devoted to obits.

Obit headlines from listeners

Here are some obituary headlines listeners gave for themselves.

  • Gordon Comstock, Brad Pitt Doppelganger, Dies Suddenly
  • Bill Coulson, Former Debate Couch, Cool Uncle, Found Dead at 85 by Movie Theater Usher
  • Maureen O’Donnell, Obit Writer Brought Comfort to Others, Dies at 97

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.