I’ll never forget the year I ruined Christmas.
December 26th, early afternoon. I was still pretty green, only three months in and the newest member of the obituary department. Back when everything was fresh and interesting, before I answered the phone with any bitterness in my voice. I volunteered to check the department voicemail. I thought it would be low-key the day after a holiday.
The first message started at 6:30 a.m. A woman said her brother’s obituary was missing information. I felt a punch to my stomach, as it always did in those situations. The second message was two hours later. She was irritated that we hadn’t called her yet. “Call me back immediately. This is unacceptable.” The third message came in around 10 a.m. Her irritation was now anger. “I just wanted to say thank you…thank you for RUINING CHRISTMAS.” She was livid by the last message, left at noon: “If I don’t hear back from you soon, I am going to the local news and EXPOSING THIS NEWSPAPER.”
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Let me answer some of your questions before you even ask. My dad saw an ad in the newspaper for an obituary writer and I applied like any other gig. No, I never wrote an obit for anyone famous, just ordinary citizens. Yes, I know Jude Law was an obituary writer in Closer. Yep, so was Jeremy Piven in Serendipity. I can’t think of any other famous obituary writers either.
I worked in the obit department for almost five years. Telling people what I did for a living was one of my favorite things. It became a good way to gauge whether this stranger and I would get along. Many were horrified. They couldn’t imagine having this job and let me know it.
“That’s so sad,” they’d say. “I would cry every day, don’t you?”
These were perfectly nice people and I felt callused next to them, like the hands of a mechanic compared to those of a model. When I told them that I never came close to crying, I’m sure they thought I was weird or even cold-hearted, but it was the truth. If I cried over every person, I would never get my work done.
A few wondered whether the job came from a fascination with the undead. I joke-but-not-joke that I’ll be the first one taken down at the next zombie apocalypse. Not just because I’m a slow runner, but I’m convinced that these zombies will know that I was the one who let a typo go by in their death notice. In my zombie-ruled fantasy world, they can read, and they read their own obituaries.
My favorite people were the ones who could see the humor in it, just as with anything else in life. They usually responded with “No way” or “Awesome!” and begged me for anecdotes. If you made it this far, you’re probably one of my favorites.
Every day always began with a draft. Each email printed, all faxes collected, and one by one, we’d pick an obit. The person who got in the office earliest went first, and then in descending order. I was nearly always last.
Some obits required careful consideration. Was it a funeral home you liked working with or an out-of-state family member, which would require more work? A death notice that looked simple could turn out to be complicated. The number of obits to choose from also made a big difference. It your order in the picking line was just right, you could end up with one less obit than everyone else. If it wasn’t, then you got the stinkiest fish in the barrel, the last one left. Usually these would be a difficult email from a family member or a handwritten fax that would need to be deciphered and typed up. As more obits came in during the day, we would individually claim them until there were so many that we’d draft all over again.
Voicemail was the wildcard. Most messages were fine. Once or twice a week, voicemail was a horrible pick. The messages would be angry or so numerous that it would take all afternoon to answer them (my personal best is 31 returned messages). And yet, every once in awhile, there would be no voicemails at all. That way always a nice way to start the day.
From beginning to end, the phone would ring. I said “Obituaries, Andrea speaking” dozens of times a day. I used to joke that I would make more money if I got paid five cents for every phone call. I can still replay some of the most interesting calls in my head. The little old man who answered me back, “Hello, Speaking.” The funeral home who used the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” as their on-hold music. As the weeks turned into months and months into years, I began to run on autopilot, able to predict people’s questions before they asked them.
Back to ruining Christmas.
Unless someone offers to help, the person who checked the voicemail has the task of returning phone calls. My other coworker on that crazy post-Christmas day did not speak up to give me a hand and I wasn’t going to ask her to do so. It was all on me.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s Andrea, from the obituary department.”
There was a pause. “So, you finally decided to call me back.” Then she unleashed a storm.
It took 10 minutes to calm her down and for her to tell me what should have been in the obituary. I dug through the filing cabinet we used as storage and found the original copy we received from the funeral home. She said he played baseball in high school. The original copy did not say that. She told me there were a couple nieces omitted. No nieces. Nor was there any mention of his nickname. The funeral home neglected to include this information and now we had a very angry sister on the line.
It was the first mistake that would be a precursor for the hundreds after it: If we never had it in the first place, then we can’t put it in the paper. It’s not our fault, but if a newspaper is a restaurant, the obit department is the wait staff, and we hear every complaint no matter who was the culprit.
“Did you call the funeral home about this, ma’am?” I asked her.
“Well, no,” she said. “Why would I do that?”
So I called the funeral home. The guy who answered put me on hold for a few minutes. When he came back on the line, he had some news for me.
“The funeral director who handled that account is sick with the flu,” he said.
“Yes. He’s going to be out for two weeks. Can you handle it?”
I was so new back then. If that request would have been made two years later when I was seasoned like a piece of steak, I would have cackled in his ear and delighted in saying no. Instead I was a harmless garden salad, the kind that wants to please everyone. I agreed.
The angry customer was not happy to hear from me again. I told her we would run the obituary the next day for free, our standard way of apologizing, and she was content with that. After that, I gave away many free obits, but I never ruined another holiday.
Calling the copydesk was our last task of the night. These were the people who would read over our work, correct our errors, and place them on the page. They worked out of a different building and we had zero physical contact with them. It took me a couple months to get comfortable calling people I never met and chatting with them like we knew each other. Those conversations started out pretty awkward.
“Copydesk,” they would answer.
“Uh, hi, this is Andrea, in the obituary department. The obits are ready,” I would say.
“Okay,” the bored copydesk employee would reply. “Thanks.”
“Okay. Right. Thank you, have a good night, goodbye.”
Over time, I eventually got over the weirdness and it became another part of the job.
The last half hour was spent sorting and putting away our paperwork. Even if music was playing in the background, it was the quietest time of the day. It was 7:30, the rest of the office had long left by now, and we would soon leave too. One last phone call to the copydesk to confirm that everything was fine and we were out the door as most people were tuning into primetime TV.
Some would assume it was a sad place to work when it was the complete opposite. My coworkers were extremely funny people. There was a good stretch of time where I laughed, genuinely and loudly, every single day at work. I forgot how rare that can be in a workplace until after I left.
A good sense humor was a necessity. There were intricacies about the job that not even other newspaper employees understood. Our department walked a fine line between editorial and ad sales unlike any other at the paper. There were constantly little battles between the rules of AP style we had to follow and the demands of those who paid our bills.
“Yes, there needs to be a comma there. Trust me.”
“The first sentence of the obituary has to be their name, where they were from, and when they died. We can put the poem afterward.”
“The family wants this printed exactly how they wrote it? Well, we need to at least clean up the grammar and punctuation…what do you mean, no?”
My manager once spent more than an hour on the phone with a distressed family member over our (correct) use of semicolons. I found out the hard way that there are people who definitely give a fuck about the Oxford comma. We tried to please the public while still following the rules.
Moments of frustration can add up quickly. It’s easy to lose the humanity of the job when it’s half hour past deadline with a dozen obits left to edit and lunch was an apple because heating up soup in the microwave would take too long. After a while, it’s all words. Sometimes I would need a reminder that there were people behind those names.
“I heard from a friend that my sister died,” said the woman on the other line. “I haven’t talked to my family in years and I can’t find it in the paper. Can you help me, please?”
I searched by her sister’s name in our database and found her. The obit had come in earlier that day and was scheduled to run tomorrow.
“I do see someone by that name in our system.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath. “You do?”
I gave her the age and confirmed a couple other details with her. She thanked me and said goodbye, her voice close to breaking.
“Who was that?” my coworker asked.
“Family member calling to confirm a name.”
“Oh.” No more needed to be said.
It got old. The questions, the schedule, the routine. I was bored. I liked my co-workers, but our close friendship could feel suffocating at times. Even worse, I was earning more money than ever, making it harder to leave. I stayed for two years longer than I should have because of the money and the comfort I felt there. When I left the job about six months ago, it was bittersweet. I knew I had to go now or I would never try anything new.
Some of my acquaintances were disappointed in me.
“Why would leave obits?” they asked. “That was the best job.”
“Hah, yeah,” I said back. It was the shortest and easiest reply.
Someone recently asked me what I learned from the obituary department that I take with me in my other writing. I was caught off guard and said something about meeting deadlines. A better answer would be an appreciation for the details, patience for the hard times, and a good sense of humor, all things which serve me well in life too. And of course, living one day at a time, just in case the zombies come by.
Andrea Laurion is a writer, improviser, and performer living in Pittsburgh. She has also worked as a birthday party hostess, a lunch lady, and undercover (kind of).