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Monday, May 17, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

One of the recurring discussions among obituary writers hinges on whether one is a "professional obituary writer" or not.  That delineation has always troubled me since it seems the world of obituarists is far more diversified than the category of newpaper obit writers.  The following comment is simply meant to inform the subject and is my opinion (professional or not!)


Who Is the “Professional” Obituary Writer Anyway ?

Virtually every discussion among people who consider themselves “professionals” in a field leads to a fundamental dilemma: what does it take to be a profession / professional?
Some of the most common answers are:

• A professional gets paid for his/her work.

• A professional makes a living by his / her work.

• A profession usually requires a special course of study.

• A profession has certain standards of excellence.

• A profession has a code of ethical behavior.

• A profession is built on truth and service.

• A profession usually offers opportunities for professional development.

• Some type of review for performance with reward for good performance and some type of punishment for poor performance.

So based on those general criteria, who are the “professionals” among the following?








Obituary writers?

Race Car Drivers?

Just for fun, take the gambler (PLEASE!) We probably have all referred to someone as a “professional gambler” at some time. Makes a living by his work? Maybe. Has certain standards of excellence? Likely. Code of ethical behavior? Likely to be minimal but there would be one. Opportunities for professional development? Practice, practice, practice. Review for performance? Oh, ye$!

Take a look at the other possible professions listed above and give thought to whether their practitioners would be considered “professionals.” The exercise is fun but not without substance. Sometimes we get a bit caught up in our own importance; considering other “professions” might give us a better view of our own status.
There has long been mumbling and grumbling regarding just who is a professional obituary writer and who is not. Are those deemed not worthy of the “professional” stamp of approval to be considered “unprofessional?” Are those who practice their craft as free lance or contract obituary writers less professional than those who are paid a salary at a news organization for writing obituaries? And what about those writers who apply their skills to writing obituaries as unpaid, volunteer writers? Are funeral home staff who compile obituaries as a part of their services considered professional obit writers? And what about the person who writes his own obituary?

My own attitude toward the “professional obituary writer” goes beyond a tightly restrictive definition that would apply only to the newspaper world of obituaries. I even ask the unthinkable question: What difference does it make whether one is a professional or non-professional obit writer as long as the obituary meets acceptable literary standards? As we can see from the rapidly changing state of newspapers, that avenue for obituary writing—and employment—is disappearing as we speak. Therefore, the attachment to a newspaper is a changing situation.

The electronic media / internet offers an expanded avenue for the work of obituary writers. However, unless one has fulltime or even part-time employment with such organizations, is he / she not a professional obituary writer? And who knows what lies in the future? Who would have imagined a few years ago that an online magazine such as Obit would emerge? If any of their writers are merely “volunteer contributors” rather than paid staff, are they not to be considered “professional?”

The real basis for the “professional obituary writer” debate seems to me to be one of exclusivity. The fewer obituary writers who can be considered “professionals,” perhaps the more recognition can be garnered by the exclusive group who promote themselves as “professional obituary writers.”

This discussion has omitted—until now—the altruistic, fundamental reasons for the obituary writer’s work in the first place:

The position was NOT designed to give you a job on a newspaper.

It was not designed to showcase your journalistic prowess.

It was not created soley for you to get a byline.

It was not just an assignment until you could move on to real journalism.

It WAS to tell the story of a life—good, bad or ugly. It WAS to put to print that story of a life for historical, genealogical purposes in what has until now been considered the official “document of record” –the newspaper. It WAS to leave a legacy of the life to the community, the family and the future. It was NOT to build your own reputation as a writer.

Consider the obituary pages of many venerable international news organizations where outstanding professional obituary writing has been the standard and the hallmark of this very specialized niche writing----with not a byline to be seen in print.

So who are the “professional obituary writers” of whom we speak? Think about it.

Carolyn Gilbert, Founder
International Association of Obituarists
May 2010

1 comment:

  1. I love your passion for what you do and think that obit writers preserve our history.

    I consider myself a professional in my field. I have earned a professional designation, adhere to a code of ethics, make my living in my field of expertise but am more concerned with meeting the insurance needs of my clients than the need of my wallet.

    In addition to all that I am a historian. I thank you for keeping the history of individuals alive even after their death. To me the history of cultures is interesting but all cultures are made up of individuals. If only the native Americans had obit writers we would know much more than we do and appreciate that culture more.