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American Journalism Review
A Stylish Send-off for Regular Joes  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   April 1999

A Stylish Send-off for Regular Joes   

MARIANN WANTS TO LIVE. And Mariann wanted to die. As she cruised the dark, deserted streets of Huntington Beach, her husband, Brett, said she repeatedly called him. The couple had recently separated, he said. She was so very sorry, she said. She wished she could make it all go away. She loved him and the kids, she said, more than anything.... Mariann was found at 1 p.m. on Dec. 9 in the back parking lot of a Huntington Beach industrial park. Her seat was reclined, and she appeared to be sleeping, with photos of her children--Dylan, 7, and Brandon, 5--spread across her lap. She was dead of an overdose at age 28.
Robin Hinch in the Orange County Register, December 21, 1997.

By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.     

Related reading:
   » The Death of the Free Obit

ROBIN HINCH RARELY meets the subjects of her profiles until they're dead, but she doesn't view that as a problem. At her desk at the Orange County Register, she scans the forms the local funeral homes send in, chats with funeral directors who've watched the mourners choose caskets and burial clothing, and, with an eye for a story that can shine in the telling, chooses a dead person to profile. In the course of the next day or so, Hinch will interview a recently bereaved family and assemble a biographical obituary.
Sometimes Register readers will recognize the name. More often, they won't. Instead, they'll meet Mariann Trimper, driven to her death by inexplicable depression. Or Anne Culliton, switchboard operator at Knott's Berry Farms, whose closet "reflected the ups and downs of her weight with a comfy variety of dress sizes."
"I don't write about people's deaths. I write about their lives," says Hinch, 56, who was wooed away from Long Beach's Press-Telegram in July 1997 to bring her popular brand of obituaries (she calls them "life stories") to the Register. The Register's editor, Tonnie Katz, calls her the Edna Buchanan of obituaries, comparing Hinch's storytelling skills to those of the former police reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner for the Miami Herald.
"I try to avoid people of notoriety. I try to just choose people who lived," Hinch says. "And I write about the whole person--their foibles and their downfalls. It's no fun if you can't tell about the temper tantrum they had standing in line once...and even when I've written these [unflattering anecdotes], people will call and say, `Yep, that's Dad, all right.' "
Hinch and a relatively small number of writers around the country--including Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News, Joe Simnacher of the Dallas Morning News and Jennifer Hewlett of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader--are carrying on a tradition that many say is in need of revival: writing not only about the celebrated departed, but the local and ordinary dead. At dailies such as the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press and the Sun in Bremerton, Washington, when ordinary people die, the newspaper notes it.
Nicholson's efforts have found an appreciative audience. In the five counties around Philadelphia, where between 300 and 500 people die daily, about 150 people will pay for death notices; maybe 10 or 15 people will ask for Nicholson's obits. He does his best to write five a day, filling the 22 inches or so he is now allotted. In the good old days, a dozen years ago or so, he had unlimited space, he recalls.
So well-known is his style that some family members will bring in handwritten but nearly perfectly constructed Nicholson-type obits; others he has to dig for. "I don't write so many long obits," he says. "If I wanted to, I could be Mr. All-American Razzle-Dazzle and do a 22-inch one, but then somebody [else's obit] would hit the floor. It's a trade-off."
Still, Nicholson, 57, does his best to embed some of the personal detail that dominates the talk at wakes and funeral feasts. A speech pathologist who served as a strike captain in a teacher's union and campaigned for Republican Sen. Arlen Specter was, her husband told Nicholson, "always her own person. She had a strong sense of what she believed to be right and wrong and was never afraid to say so." A retired seamstress had sung contralto in a gospel choir. An archpriest in the Russian Orthodox Church had been the son of a Russian Army officer who was tortured and murdered by Chinese bandits; he and his mother had fled Manchuria a step ahead of the Chinese.
Nicholson and Hinch are onto something, says Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, where brief, free death notices are provided and one or two headlined obituaries are staff-written each day. At their best, obits can become "the stuff of biography, of narrative and storytelling, reflecting the robust life of the community," he says. "It's great reading of the ways a newspaper like ours can knit together a region."
Some dailies, such as the Orange County Register, are finding a compromise in highlighting for free a few citizens a week. Readers understand it is an honor to be included, says Register Editor Katz. "I think we do the community a disservice if we focus just on the famous people," she says. "The regular people, your friends, your neighbors, the people you live amongst.... That's who this is for."
Curt Hazlett, managing editor of the Portland Press Herald in Maine, agrees. "We try to find people who have had smaller but significant impact," he says of that paper's obit policy. "We do everyone from a homemaker who had 16 children to, a few years back, a man who was well-known in his neighborhood for spending virtually every day in a lawn chair by the curb."
Hinch can relate to those kinds of stories. Though she wept when she was first "forced" in 1991 into obit writing at Long Beach's Press-Telegram--"I thought my career was over"--she now sees it as a reader service and the most rewarding of beats. "Human nature," she says, "just fascinates me beyond belief."
She says the family members she visits and interviews for the Orange County Register "totally trust me to do this right. They regard it as a tribute. Here's this person who lived a really good life, and somebody's going to write about it."



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