Dead more than 10,000 times, and still living

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, June 11th, 2009

Joan Harvey has written over 10,000 obituaries for The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

Joan Harvey has written over 10,000 obituaries. "I don’t write that much about death, I’m writing about peoples’ lives." (Photo by Justin Nobel)

Joan Harvey has written over 10,000 obituaries. “Humans need to talk about the death,” she said. “Sometimes they want to talk about the death a lot, with a lot of details.” (Photo by Justin Nobel)

She now writes Life Stories for the paper, feature pieces about interesting and unknown Portland people who have just died. Digital Dying spoke with her about what it’s like to cover death for a living.

How did you begin writing obituaries?

I used to write a lot of travel and food stories. I ran into an old friend whose mother had been very nice to me as a child. I asked her how her mother was and she burst into tears. After that I started reading the obituaries. I realized their importance, not just as a source of information about a person, but as a history for the whole community.

Do you always include the cause of death?

Sometimes you don’t even know the cause of death. The death certificate says something but it isn’t always accurate. When AIDS first started, that was such a problem. People didn’t want that in, so we had a lot of 30 year-old men dying of pneumonia. But generally, when people lose somebody they want to talk, and sometimes they want to talk about the death a lot, with a lot of details. They have experienced these horrible things and no one else will listen. Other people will come over to comfort them and talk about movies. But humans need to talk about the death too.

Have you noticed any interesting death trends?

During one six-month period we noticed that we had a lot of young Pacific Islanders dying of heart attacks. So we called reporters over and they investigated but couldn’t find anything. Another time we had a lot of suicides, all young people who had been incarcerated. That was kind of interesting. It seemed coincidental, but there was never enough evidence. Also, the overdoses sometimes got interesting, and the times of year that this would happen. We always got a lot of overdoses when the weather turned nice. In Oregon, it doesn’t happen until about June. Kids get out of school and return home. But drawing something from that would be highly unscientific.

What are some of the job’s difficulties?

I have had a couple really hard ones lately, just because of dysfunctional families. I always do a criminal check on the deceased and their spouse. This one woman I wrote about who died of cancer had a husband who had a big record and a lot of DWI’s. He had died a few months before her, probably of a heart attack. One of the daughters came home and found him dead and tried to perform CPR. It was just awful for these girls. I was thinking not to write it but eventually I decided to. I told the kids that I would have to mention the father’s DWIs and cleared it with the older teenage daughter. I wrote that the father had battled alcoholism and a gambling addiction. His family went berserk.

Another big problem is writing about a person’s weight. One woman I wrote about had been struck by cars three times. Finally, one killed her. She had a big weight problem. It was a big thing to her, she kept joining Weight Watchers. When the piece came out her family and friends were fine with it but other people who knew her marginally, or didn’t even know her, said, ‘Oh my goodness, you shouldn’t say that!’ You can say all kinds of things, but not that someone is overweight.

How does the obit beat compare to writing for other sections of the newspaper?

I love my job; it’s as varied as people’s lives. If I write about a woman who is a hot-rodder I need to learn about hot rods. Currently, I am writing about a Chinese woman who was a gardener. She had a lot of classical plants, like bonsai. I had to learn the difference between the Japanese and Chinese names. Someone covering City Hall has to really delve into one thing. At the end of the week, I can forget about hotrods and bonsais.

Has writing obits changed the way you consider death?

In the office, we have our usual files on strange ways to die and 250 obit clichés, such as, Going to the golf course in the sky. There is the typical morbid humor, and the death pools; you start January 1st, trying to guess who is going to die that year. But I don’t write that much about death, I’m writing about people’s lives. Some reporters have to do a story an hour after someone is shot or a child has drowned, that’s much more difficult.

I think about things as they relate to death, but I don’t obsess. When I get an honor I will say, “Oh, that’s good on the obituary.”

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