Life stories

Recently on the CBS television program Sunday Morning, the producers looked at the role of obituary writers in newspapers and how their work has changed over time.

Originally obituaries were written about community leaders, influential citizens, the powerful. But over time these records of lives lived gradually evolved into stories about many kinds of individuals, citizens of all kinds - plumbers, teachers, doctors and so on. In short, the newspaper obituary now reflects the idea that ever person's life is a story worth telling.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the New York Times found itself with a daunting challenge: how to tell the story of thousands of victims of the collapse of the Twin Towers? The newspaper decided to publish short summaries of as many of those lives as it could. The Times called the capsules Portraits of Grief. They were published every day for more than three months. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for the feature.

What struck me most while watching the program were the comments by one of the newspaper reporters who wrote those summaries. Jan Hoffman interviewed a lot of victims' families and colleagues. She remembers that people usually focused their response around simple themes: "It was about love, it was about singularity, it was about connection, it was about moments of thoughtfulness."

"The singular quality that really stays with me is almost no one ever talked about that person's job."

A sobering thought for all of us.

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