Writing About Death For A Living

Alex Ronan interviews Margalit Fox, who has written obituaries for the New York Times for nearly twenty years. Fox poignantly describes how she approaches cases of suicide:

One of the most heart-wrenching interviews I’d ever have to do was for a poet. I have maybe one suicide a year and they all seem to be poets. If I were an insurance company, I’d never write a policy for poets. This particular poet had shot himself, which I knew from other sources. … I knew I’d have to call this poet’s wife and ask her to confirm the cause of death. There is nothing in Emily Post on making that call. It’s bizarre and horrific that as a stranger you’re calling someone cold and saying, Hello, you don’t know me, but I’m going to ask about the most painful thing in your life, which just happened yesterday, and I’m going to publish it where millions of people can see it. I called up, I took a deep, silent breath, I introduced myself and then—I’d normally never be this familiar with a source—I said, Honey, what the hell happened? God bless her, she told me. It was New York, in the summer, they had a bedroom air conditioner that was very noisy and, as his last act of tenderness to her, he made sure it was on, knowing the noise of the AC would cover the sound of the shot.

She continues:

Suicides, particularly young suicides, are very, very painful. You can’t not be affected by having a story on your desk about someone in their twenties or thirties who has just shot himself. Very rarely is there an emotional toll, maybe once or twice a year. Happily, the vast majority of people we write about are people who’ve died in their beds in their eighties, having lived long, fruitful lives.