April 10, 2014

How the New York Times decides whether an obituary is warranted

Margalit Fox who has written over 1000 obituaries for The New York Times Answers the Question:  'Why That Life?'

As we often say to one another ruefully, running the Obituary department of The Times is like presiding over the admissions committee of the most selective college in the world.
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Besides the monarchs and captains of industry, likely candidates for our page include another, lesser-known group. These are history’s backstage players who, working quietly, have nonetheless managed to reshape our culture – the men and women who have put enduring creases in the social fabric. And it is these unsung actors whom obit writers love best.

In my decade in the job, I have had the great narrative pleasure of writing about Jack A. Kinzler, the NASA employee who designed a humble parasol that saved the imperiled Skylab space station; Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, who almost single-handedly opened the modeling profession to African-Americans; Ruth M. Siems, the General Foods home economist who invented Stove Top stuffing, and Leslie Buck, who designed the Anthora, the blue-and-white Greek-themed cardboard cup from which decades of New Yorkers drank their coffee.

Each day, it is our job to come to know such strangers intimately, inhaling their lives through telephone calls to their families, through newspaper and magazine profiles culled from electronic databases and through the crumbling yellowed clippings from the Times morgue that can fall to dust in our fingers as we read them. ….

If all has gone well, we have also arrived at the solution to the mystery, for in the course of the day we have learned not only how our subjects got from A to B to C in their lives – and how much of that progress was a product of free will and how much a result of pure blind fate – but also how, and why, they embodied the age in which they lived.
Posted by Jill Fallon at April 10, 2014 4:50 PM | Permalink