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The craft, essence, and importance of obituary writing

Dec. 8, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Carlene Hempel, teaching professor in the School of Journalism, poses for a portrait at Northeastern University on Dec. 8, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Carlene Hempel says The New York Times’ obituary of Fidel Castro last month was not only a journalism “masterpiece,” but also serves as an excellent teaching tool from which her students can learn essential lessons in storytelling.

Hempel, teaching professor in the School of Journalism, says obituary writing is a particular focus in her “Journalism 1” introductory course, and she’s always looking for strong examples to share with students. When news of Castro’s death broke, her first stops were the Times, The Washington Post, and The Miami Herald—all three of which struck a chord with her for their sweeping language, with decades of Castro’s life cast into single sentences, and details that captured the Cuban revolutionary’s iconic appearance.

“It’s a little strange to talk about an obituary as a work of art, because of course it’s a death and that must be honored in and of itself,” she says. “But this obituary in The New York Times was a magnificent piece of journalism.”

People will clip obituaries and save them for years. They’ll put them on their fridges, or keep them folded up in their sock drawers. It’s an enduring piece of journalism.
—Carlene Hempel, teaching professor, School of Journalism

Obituaries for many public figures are written months and years in advance, Hempel explained, though most not to the extent of Castro’s. Sixteen past and present New York Times journalists recounted their work on the obituary, which was first drafted in 1959, more than 50 years before Castro’s death.

At other times, journalists must mobilize quickly to report on the sudden death of a public figure; one example she often shares with students is actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s obituary in 2014.

Hempel’s journalism career spans more than 20 years. She cut her teeth reporting at The Middlesex News—now The MetroWest Daily News—where she learned and honed the craft of writing obituaries. “The key,” she says, “is capturing the person in death as he was in life, to really seek out the components of his personality that will come out in the writing.” While reporting on death is morbid, she says, it’s very important, honorable work—a lesson she imparts on her students. Another lesson is ensuring that you get your facts straight; accuracy, she says, is essential in all journalism, but it takes on particular significance in an obituary.

“People will clip obituaries and save them for years,” she says. “They’ll put them on their fridges, or keep them folded up in their sock drawers. It’s an enduring piece of journalism.”

Hempel would know. She keeps the obituary of her grandmother, Ida Urbinati, taped to the wall of her office. “I’m sitting here looking at it at my desk,” Hempel says in a recent phone interview. “I look at it all the time. It’s the last piece of something tangible I have of her.”

Carlene Hempel keeps the obituary of her grandmother, Ida Urbinati, taped to the wall of her office in Holmes Hall. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Carlene Hempel keeps the obituary of her grandmother, Ida Urbinati, taped to the wall of her office in Holmes Hall. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hempel requires her students to each write three obituaries—one about themselves, another about a celebrity, and a third about a student unknown to them on campus who they must approach and convince to participate. She says these assignments—particularly the latter—force budding reporters to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, but it’s interviewing experience that will serve them well in their journalism careers.

“Students are startled by that sometimes,” she says. “The point is that these people are part of us, and we need to tell their stories.”

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