The Stories They Continue to Tell

Jim Sheeler on learning lessons from the dead.

To Jim Sheeler, obituaries are all about the things people leave behind — the trinkets, the books, the stories, the lessons, the memories. Sheeler is the author of Obit — a collection of his obituaries of ordinary people and the lives they led — and Final Salute, based on his Pulitzer-winning article of the same name, about casualty notification in the Marines. We chatted to Jim about finding the story in a life, becoming emotionally invested in his subjects, and how obits have shaped his own life.

Now, from an outsider’s perspective, your career seems rather morbid — you wrote obits for years, and followed that up with Final Salute. So I have to start by asking: why… death?

Y’know, I’ve tried to answer that question for myself a number of times. I think there’s a rawness, and a real humanity that you find when somebody dies — in how people react to it and how they reflect on their own lives. In some ways what these obituaries have done for me really is make me look for the lessons in these lives, and think how they might affect my own — it’s impossible to sit in that many funerals and not reflect on your own mortality at times. One of the things that I always ask people when I’m writing obituaries is “What can I learn from this life? What lessons did you learn from them?” It’s a really difficult question to answer, but the answers can be fantastic — they’ve definitely help shape who I am as a person.

How have they shaped you exactly?

I think I have more of an awareness now for the people who take care of others, whether that’s people like Major Beck in Final Salute, or a hospice worker who stayed with this person who died. There are so many of these stories of love, and of family. And a lot of these stories only come out when it’s the last opportunity to tell them.

Writing those stories is a different kind of responsibility, from, y’know, the breaking-news-type stories where you’re stressed out getting the facts straight and trying to crank it out on time. With the obituaries I write, this is the last time the story will be told; you really want to try and have the story live up to that life.

Do you think that responsibility might shape how you tell the person’s story?

When you have one of these amazing lives and you’re writing these stories for the last time, I think the responsibility and pressure of doing that life justice helps — I’d often stay up all night writing these, because I’d never feel I was quite there yet.

But as far as responsibility goes, my ultimate responsibility — as with any story — is to the reader. I’m not writing these for the family. I’m not writing them for the person who’s died. I’m not writing a eulogy, I’m trying to write something that will last — a short story with a beginning, a middle and an end. A story that’s compelling, with lessons and everyday philosophy that you don’t find in other parts of the newspaper.

And how do you decide how to write about? How do you decide whose stories are worth remembering?

When I started, my main goal was to write about people who never been written about — people who would be described by others as “just ordinary people.” And I got that a lot — I’d call up the family, asking to talk to them about their loved one, and they’d say “I’m surprised that you called — my husband was just a farmer.” But there’s always so much more to these people’s lives.

Some days, I’d challenge myself — I’d just pick a name at random, call the family and find the story there. In my book, there’s an obit for Robert Druva, who was some middle-management executive for… an engineering firm, I believe. On the surface, it seems like it could be very difficult to find the story there — but when I went and talked to the family, it turned out he was this absolutely hilarious practical joker. That ended up being one of my favourites in the book. There’s a story everywhere — some of them take longer to find, but there’s always a story.

I feel part of the story in a way — I want to get as close to it as I can.

Is there more pressure, would you say, to be objective in your reporting, when this is the last — perhaps only — time that somebody’s story will be told?

In many ways, objectivity is impossible — we all bring our life experiences into our stories. Whether we see them or not, they’re there. I guess, in the same way that I would be in writing a profile of a living person, I’m just trying to get a sense of who that person is, what they have to teach me — to really just be fair and honest to the story.

I want somebody to read that story and be able to say “That’s exactly who that person was.” Both positively and negatively, y’know? I want to include the faults of somebody as much as I possibly can. We often put people up on pedestals after they die. This is especially true when you’re dealing with the military — but in many of my stories, I found that the lives they’d lived before the military were really troubled, and it was important to tell that story in their obits too. It’s not a eulogy, it’s a true story of someone’s life. I try to show all aspects of that life — after somebody dies, it’s easy to fall into cliches when talking about them, but if the obit is just those cliches, the person doesn’t seem real.

And when somebody tells me one of those cliches, like “He never knew a stranger” or “He would give the shirt off his back to help somebody,” I’ll ask “Well, did you ever actually see him give the shirt off his back to help somebody?” Y’know, you have to cut through those cliches. And sometimes, a great story comes from that: one time, I asked a woman that question and she said “Well, no, I never actually saw her give the shirt off her back, but one time she took off her shoes and gave them to a homeless person on the street.” And there you go — that’s the actual image, the actual story, rather than the cliche.

After reading your obits, I’m often left wishing that person could have been around to read that. Are these stories that could only be written after the fact, do you think?

That’s a great question — I think most of them could have been written as profiles whilst the people were alive. I would have loved to have met most of the people I wrote obits for, and to have told their stories that way. But I think the stories would have been different. A lot of my stories are about the people, the things and the legacies that remain — it’s not necessarily about what’s gone, but what’s still there. The stories that they continue to tell. After somebody dies, people reflect on a life, and figure out the stories that mean the most to them. Those are the stories that really helped shape my ideas of what this life meant.

I want to write these stories as if the person was alive — using the same techniques as I would writing a profile. I want to be there on the scene; I want to look through their bookshelves and find out what passages they’d revisited over and over; look around their house and see what they put up on their walls. What influences them, y’know? The techniques are the same as when writing a profile — the difference is that I’m trying to get a sense of who the person was, instead of who they are.

What would you say the biggest mistake writers make when writing obits?

I think it’s too easy to fall into formulas — writing obituaries in that same formulaic style that we’re taught, y’know, where you start with…

“They died aged X” and then end with “They are survived by A and B and…”

Exactly. Y’know, the top of the page usually says “Obituaries” — the readers know that these people have died. I always wanted to start my stories with an actual scene — a real beginning. A lot of my obituaries begin with life — something that’s happening, with real action and a real sense of remembrance.

Eventually, I’ll get to the paragraph that says that they’ve died, but really, I want these stories to be written as real stories — I think that that obituary formula can be broken. It makes it harder to write the stories, of course, because you have to do far more reporting — a lot of obituary writers don’t have the luxury of time that I had. Most of my obituaries were not written on deadline, and that was enormously helpful for me — it meant I could go out and make those few more phone calls. Actually, no — not phone calls — most of my interviews were done in person. And I think that’s something else that not just obituary writers, but all reporters, need to do more of: stop relying on the telephone, go out to meet people: it makes an enormous difference when it comes to telling their stories.

What, then, would you say are the personality traits needed to be a great obituarist?

I think the traits are the same for almost any reporter — curiosity, patience and compassion. A willingness to sit with the grieving families and really listen — if somebody breaks down and starts crying, you just tell them that it’s perfectly okay and to take their time — when somebody hears that, they realise that you are there for them: you’re genuinely interested in their story. You can’t fake compassion, or interest: if a journalist finds themselves not fully engaged with the story, the families will notice that, and the journalist isn’t going to get the story. And they don’t deserve the story.

I think the pressure of wanting to write a story that equals the life is something that helps me write too. I feel part of the story in a way— I want to get as close to it as I can. That definitely shaped the way I wrote Final Salute — it absolutely tore me up inside. It was just so overwhelmingly emotional.

And you must sense a similar level of emotion from the families too?

You get a real feeling of catharsis from the family once you get started on the interview. There are so many taboos around talking about death. People get really apprehensive around it — they don’t know what to say, so they don’t really talk about it. But then I show up with my notepad, as an obituary writer, and I want to talk about the one thing that they do wanna talk about — their loved one.

Once they get started looking through scrapbooks, or showing me aspects of these people’s lives, the stories really come out. These are the things they’ve been wanting to say, but haven’t had the opportunity to do so — nobody’s sat there with them, asked them questions and been interested in these small little aspects of their loved one’s life. Quite often, they’re thanking me before I’ve even written the story — it’s one of the few reporting jobs where you get hugged after you do an interview.

Do you think that being able to find those small parts of a life made you better able to appreciate the small parts of your own life?

Absolutely! I mean, you watch your son growing up, then you go and write an obituary about somebody — old or young — and you realise that you’re in this world where anything can happen at any time. You have to make the most of the small things. And that’s one reason I’m teaching now, and not writing as much — I was finding that the pressure of writing these stories, and the time and detail that I had to put into them was taking away from my own life.

That’s the fate of any journalist, isn’t it? You become so caught up in the lives of others that you can forget to live your own…

Exactly — the more the story grabs you, the more you’re immersed in it, both physically and mentally. Sometimes I would become too committed to the stories and would overlook the lessons contained within them — the lessons they were trying to teach me. Teaching has allowed me to spend a lot more time at home and made me realise that’s where the most important time is spent. I’ve learned so much from these lives, and I would not give up a single one of the stories that I’ve written, but y’know, being home with my family has been one of the greatest lessons they’ve taught me.

How would you define success — in your career or in your life? Do you think you’ve found it yet?

So, in my journalism classes, I’ll always be introduced as, y’know, this guy who’s won all these awards. And not to say that the awards mean nothing, but I always make sure that, instead of the Pulitzer or anything like that, I bring to class this enormous box I have that’s filled with all the thank-you notes from these families over the years. Hundreds — actually, thousands — of letters from from family members who say that I perfectly captured a loved one, or readers who’ve said that some story changed their life. I’m given trinkets, too, from these people’s lives that the family members wanted me to have — a pencil holder, a t-shirt… I have this box filled with… well, filled with gratitude, basically, for me doing my job. And that is absolutely more important to me than any other material thing I own.

And finally: How would you like your own obituary to read?

I hope that it focuses on the lessons I learned as a reporter — lessons that I would hope have trickled down to the person I am. All of these people become part of your life — in some ways, the list of survivors at the end of an obituary is some of the least important information, because many of the most important people who’ve affected a life are the ones that have already died. In my case, that means thousands of people who won’t end up in my obituary, but who have definitely shaped who I am. These stories are absolutely a part of me — I hope that that would show up in my obituary. ◈