The Surprising Joys Of Being An Obituary Writer

Woman sitting at a picnic table.
Woman sitting at a picnic table.

On the surface, obituary writing sounds like a rather depressing profession. But Heather Lende, who has written obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska, for almost two decades, will tell you just how uplifting, educational and fulfilling those daily assignments on death can be. In her latest book, Find the Good, she shares the unexpected life lessons she has learned from her writing post at her small town newspaper. And those lessons -- both big and small -- can help reframe the way many of us think and talk about death.

"I understand why you may think that what I do is depressing, but compared to front-page news, most obituaries are downright inspirational," Lende writes in Find the Good. "People lead all kinds of interesting and fulfilling lives, but they all end. My task is investigating the deeds, characteristics, occupations, and commitments, all that he or she made of their 'one wild and precious life,' as poet Mary Oliver has called it."

Experiencing death up close and on repeat has actually helped her identify and savor the positive parts of daily life.

"Writing obituaries is my own way of transcending bad news," writes Lende. "It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice -- and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced -- has made my life more meaningful."

While obituary writers develop a unique appreciation for life and what it means to live it well, those who read them are able to gather similar takeaways. For example, Marilyn Johnson, the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, is admittedly obsessed with reading obituary pages. She told NPR's Renee Montagne that taking the time to read people's stories after they're gone makes her feel like she's honoring them and their memory.

"They have made something of their lives, and we have judged it worth sharing," she said.

In Find the Good, Lende highlights another upside to obituaries -- they find a way to shed a positive light on tragic news.

"Whenever there is a tragedy, from the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, to here in Haines when a fisherman dies after slipping off the deck, awful events are followed by dozens and dozens of good deeds. It's not that misery loves company, exactly; rather, it's that suffering, in all its forms, and our response to it, binds us together across dinner tables, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and even time. Bad doings bring out the best in people."

There's nothing like the reminder that life is finite to encourage people to live it in the best ways possible.



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