One of my early jobs in the newsroom was working weekend rewrite shifts taking dictation from funeral home directors for the next day’s obituaries.
It was tedious, finger-cramping work, typing the details and personal narratives, one shoulder cradling a telephone. There was little time to clean up the notes and file before answering another call. But it also was fascinating to hear the stories families chose to tell as their farewell to a deceased relative.
The death notices were sad, sometimes tragic, but just as often they could be funny or heartwarming. They were news too. Not the front page variety, with a headline screaming the latest calamity. It was more of the corner store “did you hear?” kind of news, but it mattered to a lot of folks.
Our newsroom no longer handles the obituaries, nor are they free. They are now a business transaction between the funeral directors and our advertising department. We still do read them with interest, often with an eye to whether there’s another story to be told.
Recent deaths, like that of state Sen. Jim Whelan, Cape May restaurateur Harry Kulkowitz and tavern owner Jack Thomas are just a few examples of when those stories warrant more coverage.
Whelan was a familiar figure, but Kulkowitz, 92, was not, at least not until you heard his story. President Obama pointed out his valor during his 70th anniversary speech commemorating D-Day. Kulkowitz escaped Europe ahead of Hitler, came to America, and promptly turned around, joined the Army and invaded Europe.
Jack Thomas, 65, third-generation owner of Charlie’s Bar & Restaurant in Somers Point, was another recent news obituary. Thomas’s lifetime of helping others didn’t generate headlines, but his death was felt everywhere he’d been.
On Thursday, we took another tack and published dozens of photographs of those killed by their addictions to drugs. The photographs — we received more than 70 of them — told the heartbreaking story of loss.
It’s not always calamity though. Take the obituary of Jeffrey Riegel. The 56-year-old Port Republic man’s final wish, published in his obituary, was for eight Philadelphia Eagles to serve as his pallbearers. Why?
“So the Eagles could let him down one last time,” Riegel’s obituary explained. Any Eagles fan could relate.
Newspapers have a long history of writing about death. Sometimes we get criticized for it. But oftentimes in the obituaries we chose to cover as news stories, there’s an intention not to spread misery or fear, but to share an important piece of advice or experience about life.
W.F. “Buzz” Keough is managing editor of The Press of Atlantic City.