As editors and reporters emerge from the bank of elevators on the fifth floor and head toward their desks, they must first pass by the obituary news section, placed at the entrance of the Post newsroom by Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in what can only be called a brilliant move to remind staff at day's start of their impermanence.
They walk through the area quickly and silently. Obituaries are not the happiest and most glamorous assignment in the news world, perhaps just one of the most demanding. No laughs. No trips. No invitations to lunch. No freebies. No thanks. And you'd better be accurate; an error could mean extra grief to people who don't need it. Obit writers never get invited to appear on TV talk shows.
The job calls for tact and toughness. Survivors understandably seek for their loved ones a eulogy, not an obituary. A family bereaved naturally won't accept the fact of death as a news story that must include facts of life which may present the departed as less than a saint.
There is another option: no news story at all, if the deceased is not a public figure. There is always the paid classified ad, the formal death notice, in which the survivors can say what they please -- like the death notice a few weeks ago announcing the survivors as "four sons and an eccentric wife." You just pays your money.
There are often close-call decisions to be made. Not long ago, the ombudsman took the obit writers to task for an obituary of a public figure that provided the married name and precise whereabouts of his daughter, who had been involved in her youth with the murder of a policeman.
Responsible reporting required mention of the tragic incident and its aftermath, in which the father had played a role, but why was it important for everyone to know, almost two decades later, the daughter's married name and the community in which she now lives with her family? This obituary generated spirited discussion about journalistic ethics among some pretty responsible people, and the ombudsman's view is still in the minority.
The professional life of an obit writer can be a lonely one. Recently, I challenged the accepted practice of always stating the cause of death and got nowhere. So, when I read of the passing of a 94-year-old woman and the story stated, with what I felt were overtones of some deep, dark family secret, that "the cause of death was not revealed," I wrote a memo to the effect that even to discuss the cause of death of a nonagenarian was utterly ridiculous, regardless of what the overall guidelines are.
Obituary editor J. Y. Smith explained why this was done, which, frankly, I'd never thought about. In a follow-up memo on this subject I advised the newsroom staff, with a touch of whimsy and mischief, that his explanation fascinated me and if they were interested, they could phone him to hear it. Well, Mr. Smith's phone went off the hook that day. I later apologized for the mischief, but he hastily assured me it wasn't necessary.
"It was a great day for me," he said, with some intensity. "Nobody ever talks to me around here. You see the way they pass by here from the elevators? I'm Mr. Death. I've talked to more of my colleagues today than I have since I've had this job, and I meant to thank you."
Why was it necessary to refer to the cause of death when the deceased was 94? Said Joe Smith: "Okay, wise guy, at what age does a person die of old age?"
A gentle voice on the phone last week asked why he could find no report in The Post about the Dart drugstore in Northeast Washington that had burned to the ground. "No one was killed, no one was hurt," he said. "But hundreds of elderly people now will have to find some way of getting to the next nearest drugstore, more than a mile away, to have their prescriptions filled. Isn't that worth a paragraph?"
Someone told me there was a brief item in the Metro section. But missing was the poignant observation of what a burned-out drugstore means -- not to the corporate owners, but to the old folks in the community.