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How To Write The Perfect Obituary


This week, we've heard stories about people who died in 2018, stories that captured our attention when we first read those obituaries and death notices during the year. Our next guest really knows how to make a remembrance sing. Maureen O'Donnell writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, and she is a three-time winner of the Grimmy Awards. That's the recognition that the Society of Professional Obituary Writers hands out every other year. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MAUREEN O'DONNELL: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: What is the secret to creating a memorable obituary?

O'DONNELL: I think it's the little details that make history come alive. You know, this may be the man or woman who lives down the street, but they liberated a concentration camp, or they invented the beehive hairdo, or they created the Playboy bunny logo in 30 minutes.

SHAPIRO: These are all people who have actually written obituaries for in your career.


SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me when you frame it in terms of history. I think many people tend to think of history as heads of state. And certainly we read obituaries of those people. But so many of the people you've written obituaries of that are so memorable are people we might not find in a history book.

O'DONNELL: Right, like Nello Ferrara. He's the head of a chicago candy company, Ferrara Pan. He invented two candies that every candy lover enjoys, Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs. But as I got into the story, I found out the reason he named them those names. He named them Lemonheads because his son's head, delivered by forceps, reminded him of a lemon...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

O'DONNELL: ...At delivery. And he served in post-war Japan. That's the reason those jawbreakers are called Atomic Fireballs.

SHAPIRO: Your most recent Grimmy Award was for a piece about a woman named Phyllis Larson.


SHAPIRO: This won in the category best obituary of an ordinary Joe or Jane. Tell us about who she was.

O'DONNELL: Phyllis Larson was everybody's best friend around Thanksgiving. For 15 years, she was an advisor on Butterball's Turkey Talk Line. And she talked a lot of cooks down off the ceiling. One caller called in and said, my turkey's blue; what did I do? Phyllis figured out that she'd left the blue plastic wrapping on it when she put it in the oven.

SHAPIRO: And that detail made its way into your obituary for her.


SHAPIRO: One of my favorite obituaries of yours from this past year was for the founder of Vegetarian Times magazine, Paul Obis.


SHAPIRO: And there's a great anecdote at the end of this remembrance.

O'DONNELL: After about 20 years of vegetarianism, he had a little change of heart while attending a food festival called Taste of Chicago. One of his children had eaten a beef sandwich, didn't finish it, tossed it in the trash. And Paul Obis' wife said, you shouldn't waste food. He took it out of the trash, took a bite, and that was it. According to his wife, he said, man, after 20 years of tofu, this is good.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Many of us at some point in our life will be called on to write a remembrance of a loved one, perhaps a parent or a grandparent. What advice do you have for someone faced with that task?

O'DONNELL: Ari, I always remember the five W's, what we learned in journalism school - who, what, when, where, why. You want to talk about their early years. And I often will ask people I'm interviewing about the deceased person, when you picture them in your mind, what are they doing? What pops into your head first? And sometimes they'll say, oh, he's working under the car or, you know, she's riding her bike on one of her ultramarathons or she's making her famous gumbo. And I'll ask about, what are little sayings that stick with you that used to come out of their mouth, or what was the first thing I'd notice about them if I met them? So I try to almost come up with, like, the madeleine of Marcel Proust that's going to open up the trove of memories.

SHAPIRO: Maureen O'Donnell is an obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, three-time Grimmy Award winner and past president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. Thanks so much for joining us today.

O'DONNELL: Thank you so much. I could talk about obituaries all day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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