"Mobituaries": The art of obituary writing

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Former New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox with "Mobituaries" host Mo Rocca, at the Fairfield Theatre Company in Fairfield, Conn.

Chad Anderson Photography

"The dirty little secret is, it's the best beat in American journalism," said legendary New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox. "But I'm firmly convinced the child has not been born who comes home from primary school clutching a theme that says, 'When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer.' That's never gonna happen. And so, journalists, including me, stumble into it quite by accident."

The art of writing obituaries – the subject of the Mo Rocca podcast "Mobituaries," now in its second season – was the topic at recent appearances of Rocca before audiences in Asbury Park, New Jersey and Fairfield, Connecticut. That live presentation is featured in this week's episode, now available online.

"I inherited my love of obituaries from my father," said Rocca. "My father always said that the obits was his favorite section of the newspaper. And I think it's because my father had a real sense of the romance of life. I think he appreciated the sort of dramatic sweep of an obituary – seeing a person's life, the highs and lows, kind of reduced to a few inches of newsprint."

Rocca was joined onstage by Fox, who described the range of her work, including the dozens of "advance obits" left behind after her retirement, just waiting for their subjects to, well, die.

"I left behind probably between 70 and 80 advance obits—obits that are written for the undead," said Fox. "When they run is in the lap of the gods, but I've been averaging maybe one byline a month, and so it may well be the case, because of course I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, that my bylines will outlive me."

[One of those recent bylines for Fox, who wrote more than 1,400 obits before retiring from the Times in 2018, was this obituary for pianist Abbey Simon, who died last month at age 99.]

Fox also told the audience about her favorite obituary subjects, including the inventors of Stove Top stuffing, the Etch-a-Sketch, and the pink lawn flamingo.

You can stream or download the "Mobituaries" podcast "Mobituaries LIVE!" free at art19.com, or wherever you get your podcasts.

      
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See also: 

  • "Obit," a documentary by Vanessa Gould (Kino Lorber)