The Inadvertent Grief Counselor

What it's like to work as an obituarist in rural Alaska

Heather Lende (Rebecca Clarke)

Heather Lende has been an obituary writer at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska, for two decades. Lende wrote a book, Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, about her experiences and stories from the job she continues to do today.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Lende about her job, why it’s important, and what it means to the people she’s writing about. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: How did you get this job, and how long have you been doing it?

Heather Lende: I’ve been doing it since 1996, so that makes what, 20 years? I got it because I was working at our local paper, the Chilkat Valley News, which is a weekly, circulation 1,000. I was writing a column called “Duly Noted,” which is our boldfaced social column, for lack of a better way to describe it. [For example], if the Anderson family goes on vacation to Olympia, Washington, and then the names of the family and their children, and that they saw their grandmother who visits here in the summertime. Or weddings, or babies being born, or a picnic that happened, or a fundraiser or something like that.

I was doing that, and a friend of mine was dying. She got into a little tiff with the new reporter at the paper who was an investigative-journalism type. She just didn’t like him. In Haines, where we live, obituaries are news stories. When somebody dies, it’s news. She didn’t want the reporter writing her obituary, and she said so before she died. So the editor said “Heather, why don’t you do it? You write about alive people, you might as well write about dead people.” So that’s how I got it, and I’ve been pretty much doing it ever since.

Lam: How do you start writing an obituary, and how do you decide whom you write about?

Lende: Well it’s not just me, it’s the editor and the publisher of the paper. The idea is that it’s a hybrid of your standard obituary, plus a profile on the person. They tend to be longer than your standard family-written obituary—I’d say around 600 words. There’s always a photograph, and it’s a small town so we know when people die. Depending on the type of death—[for example, if it’s] the tragic death of a fisherman drowned—there’s a news story around that accident, but then I come in and write the story of their life, not the story about how they died. We usually try to do that in the same paper so that it’s not all the tragedy, because their lives are good and if they lose it, that becomes the headline. And that’s not necessarily how they want to be remembered, or how their family wants to remember them.

I do them primarily in person. I go to the home, talk with the family, I call friends on the phone. All of the obituaries I write, I know the person and I know their friends and neighbors. So even if somebody has been sick for a long time, I’m a hospice volunteer, so I know. That’s a separate thing, I don’t do it because of my job, but I found that being an obituary writer I’m kind of a grief counselor inadvertently. That’s what you do. So I got involved when they were founding a volunteer hospice … I’m one of the deathbed volunteers. Even then, there are all kinds of things that go on when people die, and a time and place to talk about it. I usually find that the obituaries tend to be on people’s to-do list: They’ve got to figure out the body stuff, the gravesite, they’ve got to get family members in and out of town. We live in a remote community, so they’ve got a lot going on and one of the things is “We’ve got to do the obit, let’s call Heather.”

Lam: Why do you think the obituary is so important?

Lende: I think they want to tell that person’s story, they want a good story to go out on. The language of [a typical] obituary tends to be almost Victorian—they’ve gone off to the angels, they never met a person who wasn’t a friend, beloved mother, sister, father—and that doesn’t really say anything. I think what’s different in the ones that I do, and our paper does, is when you write one that’s more of a profile it captures a little bit of that person and their story. People want to make sure that that’s out there. My obituaries aren't great literature, but the family likes them. They’re done in AP style. They’re done in a small newspaper.

There’s a difference between someone who writes a check for college tuition for a neighbor’s kid, and someone who comes over at two in the morning and fixes a broken pipe—it tells you something else about them. It’s the specifics of it that makes it come alive for the family and the people. I’d like to hope that when people read the [obituary] they learn something about the person, about life or relationships, or a way they might want to be or not want to be.

Lam: I heard an interview with you on Here & Now, that the historical element of an obituary is also an important part of your job.

Lende: Well, that’s what I was told at the very beginning when I first started writing: The Chilkat Valley News was the paper of record. I don’t know now—with Internet and all these new media sources—if it still carries that same kind of weight. But my editor thinks it does and I do, especially in Alaska where non-native people come and go from different places. Maybe five years from now, someone is looking for their dad who came to Alaska when he was 25 and died here when he was 70  and had no contact with him. And if they can find my obituary, and it has some dates and names, they can help piece together their life or their history from what I’ve written about their dad and contact friends and people who knew him. I think that’s of real value.

Lam: What do you think of people asking each other, as a means of reflection or motivation, the question: “Well, what do you see in your own obituary?”

Lende: Frankly I think that’s kind of silly. There’s whole books now on visualizing your life by writing your obituary. I just think that’s weird. A better way to look at it would be: By essentially [doing] what you’re doing everyday, you’re writing your own obituary. I feel like you need to live an authentic life, and not worry about an obituary being the judgment, but more of an obituary being “See, this is how I lived in this time, in this place,” and take it for what it’s worth.

It kind of reminds me of high-school seniors trying to get into a college and writing essays that might not really reflect their actual goals and dreams, but they think that’s what the college admissions want or what their parents admire. And I would hope that by the time we get to be elders and have the privilege of composing an obituary and looking back on a life that we feel is worth documenting—that we have enough wisdom to not want to manipulate it.

Lam: I’ve read my own college-entrance essays (now almost 10 years later), and I think they’re really funny in that I can see some of the values at that point in my life.

Lende: Right, if you’re one of the fortunate few that get to live 10 decades or even seven decades, it’s done by then! You’re in the last inning. You can't rewrite your life history the way you want your grandchildren to wish that you were. I think people live fascinating lives.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hemp farmer, a convenience store owner, and a lobster fisherman.