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.