Death and writing: Writing obituaries

Webinars | November 4, 2021

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On November 4, the Dying With Dignity Canada team was joined by Sandra Martin, award-winning journalist and a contributing writer for The Globe and Mail, to learn about death and writing.


Sandra Martin, an award-winning journalist and a contributing writer for The Globe and Mail, is the author of the critically acclaimed national bestseller, “A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices.” Winner of the B.C. National Non-Fiction Award and a finalist for both the Dafoe Prize and the Donner Prize in Public Policy, “A Good Death” was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Globe and Mail, the CBC and several other media outlets. Margaret Atwood has called “A Good Death” a “timely and deeply felt account of assisted dying: the histories, the issues” and included it on her list of best books about death and dying. “A Good Death” was published in a revised paperback edition in 2017 with a new chapter on Bill C-14, Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAID) law. 

An Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy from The Toronto Star, Martin has won two National Magazine Awards, several honourable mentions, the Fiona Mee Award for literary journalism, and a National Newspaper Award nomination for feature writing. As a journalist for The Globe and Mail, she was known for her books and arts coverage and especially for her perceptive, deeply researched and vividly written obituaries. Many of them formed the basis of her essays on the history, culture and future of obituaries in her book, “Working the Dead Beat: 50 lives that changed Canada.” Long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize and named a Globe one hundred book for 2012, it was published in paperback under the title, “Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada Through the Art of the Obit.”


Sandra Martin, an award-winning journalist and a contributing writer for The Globe and Mail, is the author of the critically acclaimed national bestseller, “A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices.” Winner of the B.C. National Non-Fiction Award and a finalist for both the Dafoe Prize and the Donner Prize in Public Policy, “A Good Death” was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Globe and Mail, the CBC and several other media outlets. Margaret Atwood has called “A Good Death” a “timely and deeply felt account of assisted dying: the histories, the issues” and included it on her list of best books about death and dying. “A Good Death” was published in a revised paperback edition in 2017 with a new chapter on Bill C-14, Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAID) law.

An Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy from The Toronto Star, Martin has won two National Magazine Awards, several honourable mentions, the Fiona Mee Award for literary journalism, and a National Newspaper Award nomination for feature writing. As a journalist for The Globe and Mail, she was known for her books and arts coverage and especially for her perceptive, deeply researched and vividly written obituaries. Many of them formed the basis of her essays on the history, culture and future of obituaries in her book, “Working the Dead Beat: 50 lives that changed Canada.” Long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize and named a Globe one hundred book for 2012, it was published in paperback under the title, “Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada Through the Art of the Obit.”

Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Nicole Curtis and I’m Dying With Dignity Canada’s program specialist and I’m joined by my colleagues Kelsey Goforth and Samantha Shier. Before I begin I want to acknowledge that while we are meeting virtually today, the land Dying With Dignity Canada is on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat people and is now home to many diverse first nation indigenous Inuit and Metis people. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. We invite and encourage you to do your own research regarding the various treaties in particular the land in which you are meeting with us today.

So I’m thrilled to welcome you all today to the second session of Dying With Dignity Canada’s online conference, Reflections on Death and Dying. We will be meeting throughout November, breaking in December for the holidays and resuming again in January. And we will be presenting a range of topics related to death and dying. If you haven’t done so already, all sessions and their registration links can be found on our website. I believe the link is now in the chat. And the link is in the chat for the next session and which is funeral planning and spiritual consideration with Joél Simone Anthony. So you can go ahead and register for that.

Now to introduce today’s speaker. We are pleased to welcome Sandra Martin. Sandra is an award winning journalist and contributing writer for The Globe and Mail, is an author of the critically acclaimed nationally best seller, A Good Death, Making The Most of our Final Choices. Winner of the B.C. National Nonfiction Award and a finalist for both the Dafoe Prize and the Donner Prize in public policy. A Good Death was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Globe and Mail, the CBC, and several other media outlets. Margaret Atwood has called A Good Death a timely and deeply self account of assisted dying, the histories, the issues, and included it on her list of best books about death and dying. A Good Death was published in a revised paperback edition in 2017 with a new chapter on Bill C-14, Canada’s medical assistance and dying law. So thank you for being with us today Sandra. I will now turn it over to you.

Thank you very much. And thank you for that introduction. I’m very happy to be here. So today I am going to talk about writing about dying. There are three general points I would like to make and then I hope we will have a lively conversation about dos and don’ts and come up with some practical tips both for you and me. My first point, why I become an obituist. And my second point, how obituaries led me to writing about how dying itself was changing. And my third point will be the difference between family written death notices and journalism. In that section I’m going to talk about who controls the narrative and how to shape your own writing about dying.

So let me begin with my first point which is my own story. Why I became an obituist. I had no intention of writing about death and dying 20 years ago. I was a senior feature writer and columnist at The Globe and Mail specializing in books and writers. I had a full roster of assignments and ideas I wanted to pursue. But I have always had a wondering eye as a journalist. Curiosity, an insatiable desire to ask questions, and the chance to learn something new are the spurs getting most of us up in the morning and I am no exception. Besides, how many times can you interview Margaret Atwood in one lifetime? She is so prolific that I was writing a profile about her almost every year. So when The Globe posted an opening for an obituary writer I thought why not. I could expand my range from writers, visual artists, and cultural icons to all manner of folk. Of course, I quickly learned that I was calling Atwood even more often because there was almost nothing that has happened in this country in the last half century that has escaped her interest or her involvement. Besides, she seems incapable of turning down interview requests and she is the maestro of a succinct comment.

I imagined writing obituaries would keep me under the radar and let me read, think, ask questions and file my copy with very little scrutiny because I was writing about the end of a life. Not a developing scandal or a business deal going sour. The topics that drive senior editors into a frenzy. I quickly learned that strategy only worked when I was writing about a worthy who had died quietly after a circumspect lifetime of good deeds. Let me tell you about November 30th, 2004. The evening Pierre Berton breathed his last. I had spent the day writing about Phillis Mailing. A mezzo soprano, avant-garde musician, and a former wife of composer, Murray Shaffer. I had filed my piece, it had been copy edited, and it was 6:00 so I was thinking of slipping out of the newsroom and heading home. That’s when my phone rang. Yes, we still answered phones in those days. The female voice on the other end was hoarse. “Sandra,” was all she said.

I immediately knew two things. The voice belongs to Elsa Franklin, the long standing producer confidant and publicist for Pierre Berton and that she was calling with bad news. Fortunately I had been working on Berton’s obituary but it was way past deadline and my piece was too long. Because quite frankly his life was too big to fit on the obituary page. Here is what happens when somebody significant dies. The death becomes breaking news. Decorum goes out the window. As I know all too well from having called mourners in the immediate grief of learning about the death of a loved one and sometimes even before they have heard the news. I hated making that incursion but I also knew I had to do my job. And if I refused to do it, somebody else would and I might end up pounding the pavement.

Later we can talk about how to respond if you find yourself in that situation with somebody like me interrupting your day or evening with terrible news. But let me go back to hearing that Berton had just died. Elsa Franklin may have called me first, but I wasn’t the only one on her media list. We had an advantage but not a big one. In such a situation the reporter no longer owns the file. Everybody from the editor and chief on down wants a piece of it because they are like baying hounds who have caught a whiff of fox or in my dog’s case, a glimpse of squirrel. Clearly Berton belonged on the front page. After all, he was the best selling author and popular historian who had revealed our history to us before many of us realized there was anything interesting to write about our country’s past. But he wasn’t the only front page contender that day. US president George W. Bush was on route to Ottawa for his first state visit to Canada. A trip that was only scheduled to last until the following day and space had been reserved for the Ottawa Bureau to file late breaking accounts of Bush’s dinner with then prime minister, Stephen Harper.

After alerting my section editor I went warily to the news desk to see what nightmare awaited me in my long but complete obituary of Pierre Berton. As I approached I saw seven or eight men. Yes, it was all men back then. Standing in a circle in earnest conversation weighing the merits of George W. Bush against Pierre Berton for the next day’s paper. Suddenly the front page editor looked up and exclaimed, “This is bigger than Bush.” There was a moment silence as everybody looked at him then slowly beginning with the editor and chief several heads nodded sagely. “Yes it is,” I said to myself. Resisting the impulse to thrust my fist in the air in triumph. A genuine Canadian champion has died and thank god these hard news guys had the sense to realize that cultural history is as significant as daily politics. And then the work began. The obituary page was called back from the printers. Phillis Mailing was filed for another day. I wrote a news story for the front page after calling friends and colleagues of his for reaction to Berton’s death. Polished and revised my obituary while an editor designed a standalone two page spread to accommodate the text. By 9 p.m. the copy had been ripped from my hands, final revisions made, and the send button pushed.

While I was working the dead beat Pierre Berton was the first of dozens of scrambles to encapsulate a life into a finite space on deadline. As an obituary writer I quickly realized that most people took a step back when they learned what I was doing for a living. As though I had something catching. Blame it on our death defying culture if you will. But I became accustomed to the arched eyebrow, the nervous laugh, the disparaging comments about the Siberia of journalism and even the jokes. “How’s life on the dead beat? Ha ha. Get it?” Once and for all I would like to dispel some common myths about obituaries. Myth number one, obituaries are about death. The opposite is true. Obituaries are about life. Death is only the precipitating incident for writing about life. In the same way that a birthday or an anniversary provides the occasion to reflect on a milestone or an achievement, death is the opportunity to set an entire life in context. Locally, nationally, and sometimes globally. The sad and tragic fact of somebody’s is a newsflash. The laments of mourners are reaction pieces. Public utterances at funerals are eulogies. But the obituary is something else. It is a journalistic account of a life in all its complexity. The light as well as the shadow. The achievements as well as the failings.

That makes an obituary a combination of biography, history, analysis, and reportage and almost always something that is written quickly on deadline. Myth number two, obituaries have no impact. Oh contrar. Homer’s account of the great warrior Achilles in The Iliad, his heroism, his rage, his vulnerability. It was spoken, not read but otherwise Homers epic poem has all the components of a modern obituary. For centuries people have read the written forms of the Iliad for its history, inspiration, and the lyrical beauty of its language. Let me give you a modern example of the impact of an obituary and that’s Alfred Nobel. He changed his own behavior and affected the lives of many other people because of an obituary. Born in 1833, Nobel was a Swedish chemist and armaments manufacturer. He was the inventor of dynamite. That alone would have made him famous. But he is much better known today for the Nobel Peace Prize and other prestigious awards that are given out annually in his name in Sweden.

What isn’t so well known is why he left his fortune to philanthropy. In 1888 Nobel’s older brother Ludvig died. His obituary duly appeared in a French newspaper. But the journalist had made a mistake and thought Alfred had died instead of Ludvig. That’s how Alfred read his own obituary under the critical headline, The Merchant of Death. “Dr. Alfred Nobel who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than every before died yesterday.” Alfred was so shocked that he determined to rehabilitate his legacy while he still could. That’s why he left previsions in his will to establish the Nobel Prizes for which he is famous today.

Myth number three. Obituaries are all pre written and left to molder in a drawer until the death knell tolls. That may have been the routine in the past when life was simpler. There was a consensus about who was significant. Usually male and wearing a suit. Newsrooms were staffed with lots of juniors who could be ordered to update files on slow news days. And there was a crew of librarians organizing clipping files. That is not the way it is anymore in a complicated wired up multicultural world with skinny staffs and a 24/7 news cycle. And who’s in the office anyway? Let me tell you the inside story of what some people call the morgue. The collection of obituaries that are allegedly ready to be published. There is no greater prospect of immortality than to have a pre written obituary. If you write it, they won’t die. At least until you have turned your attention to somebody else. The people who do die are the ones you haven’t written about and they usually breathe their last after deadline as I explained in telling you about Pierre Berton.

Because I was the official obituary writer at The Globe, everybody else put the advances they had been assigned in a bottom drawer. I will never forget the day poet Irving Layton died after suffering from dementia for a decade. I got a phone call about three in the afternoon from Layton’s former publisher asking if I wanted a quote. “About what?”, I asked innocently. “Irving has died,” she said. Yikes. I hadn’t worried about him because I had been told repeatedly that another staffer was writing his obit. Sure enough, my colleague had accumulated a few pages of notes in his crabbed script and promised to give them to me by 6:00. What good was that I muttered as I got on the phone to untangle a life full of lovers, children, controversies, many volumes of poetry and Layton’s paternal relationship with is protégé Leonard Cohen. Somehow it got done. Including a small poem from Leonard himself. Although the copy editor was furious because I didn’t file until 8 p.m. Perhaps that’s why the obituary ran with a joint byline. I have a long memory. Come to think about it, The Globe never replaced me as a designated obituary writer after I moved on to other pursuits. But they also relaxed the deadline policy.

The internet has added layers of complexity both in form and content. Let me tell you what happened when short story writer Mavis Gallant died. I had read her stories, interviewed her when she made a visit to Montreal to receive a major literary prize, and I had written and filed an advance obituary. Where was my obit was my first thought when I received a phone call at home early one morning from a major literary figure. My source had heard about Gallant’s death from a friend in Paris. “I will need a second source,” I said after expressing my condolences. My telephone caller understood and quickly called back with a second person who sent me a confirming email. “Okay,” I said. “I will tweak the news, write a paragraph for The Globe website, and alert the editors that they need to find the advance I had written years earlier.” Because of course the paper had been redesigned several times and everything is electronic now and ugh, nevermind. “Tweet the news Mavis has died,” my shocked source said in horror. “Senior members of the literary community won’t like that,” she said. Pause. “If I don’t teak it,” I responded crisply, “Margaret Atwood will.” End of conversation.

And that is a key point. I am a journalist. I am not writing to curry favor with the literary community, family members, or anybody else. I am writing for the public. My loyalty is to good reporting and the truth as I have researched it. A day that began early went long as I wrote a breaking news story for the web, updated my obituary with reaction, and fielded calls and emails from other news outlets who wanted to confirm her death before publishing their own stories. I posted my reaction piece to the web and then edited, updated and polished my original obit for the next day’s paper. This process of breaking news on the web and updating on the internet and putting a shorter but more polished version in the paper evokes the old days when there were several editions of a daily newspaper.

Myth number four. Never speak ill of the dead. After I wrote Clifford Olson’s obituary in September of 2011 several people asked me why I had dignified a murderer with a tribute which is a word people often mistakenly use to describe obituaries. There was nothing good to say about Olson. The habitual criminal who abducted, tortured, and killed 11 children in British Columbia in a heinous nine month rampage in the early ’80s. His revolting cash for bodies deal with authorities so families could recover the remains of their murdered children. Or as prison cell antics to negotiate a new trial, parole and other concessions. But his diabolical behavior both in and outside of prison changed the justice system in Canada. Measures that we take for granted nowadays such as victim impact statements before sentencing and at parole board hearings were nonexistent back then. Amber alerts. A national registry of missing children to strengthen the criminal code with respect to sexual assault, child abduction, and sexual abuse have also become standard. That’s why Olson was worth writing about. Not to celebrate him but to chronicle how we changed in reaction to his horrific actions.

Myth number five. An obituary is the final word. As an obituary writer in electronic age I have been jolted by email messages from around the world that arrive when it is too late to add a paragraph or revise an opinion. After the fact I have heard deliciously unvarnished tales from disgruntled stepchildren, long lost friends, former lovers, and even a painter convinced he had been swindled by a celebrated art dealer. Even the supposedly dead have risen Lazarus like to announce their continued existence. Remember the hoax that Gordon Lightfoot was dead when he in fact had simply been sitting in a dentist’s chair? I wasn’t caught in that one but many others were. There’s no point in being first with the news if you’re wrong. That is why double sourced to the web is a guiding principle. All of which has made me dismiss the widely held assumption that a newspaper obituary is the final word. Instead I have come to appreciate that obituaries are like rough building blocks in a country’s social and cultural history. Put together, they form a collective narrative that speaks to how a country developed as a nation.

And that brings me to my second point. How dying itself is changing. The longer I wrote obituaries the more I realized that people were beginning to die in different ways. And some of them were using their deaths to make a point about changing the law against assisting a suicide. Back in 1993 Sue Rodriguez had taken her challenge to have a doctor help her die all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Her determination to have choice and control over how and when her life ended was at odds with the prevailing ethos about the sanctity of life. Rodriguez was youthful, charismatic, the mother of a nine year old son, and afflicted with a terrible disease. ALS. A neurodegenerative condition that attacks the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Who could not be moved by Rodriguez’s plight? She courageously put a human face, hers, on an emotional argument about a patient’s right to choose death over a life that had become intolerable. She was mentally competent but rapidly becoming more and more disabled. She was losing her ability to move, to speak, to swallow, and facing the real prospect of choking to death on her own phlegm.

Suicide was no longer a crime but helping somebody else die was against the law. Withdrawing from life saving treatment was the only legal exit for a grievously suffering patient. At least one who was competent enough to make the request. The problem for Rodriguez was that she had to kill herself while she was still able and before she wanted to die or wait until she was on a respirator so she could ask for it to be unplugged. That was a cruel choice. She lost her challenge in a narrow five to four ruling and died in secret several months later after sipping a potion supplied by a still unknown doctor. Two decades later much had changed in the minds of Canadians. Thanks to the advocacy work of Dying With Dignity, powerful narratives from suffering patience, a doctor led movement in Quebec which argued that the province could circumvent the federal criminal code and legislate compassionate end of life treatment because delivering healthcare is a provincial responsibility. And finally the British Columbia civil liberties association on the other side of the country which was mounting a second legal challenge to the criminal code prohibition against assisting a suicide. Instead of a single plaintiff the BCCLA had a roster of people who were prepared to put privacy aside and tell their stories publicly in a campaign to change a law that they considered unjust.

I’m not going to all the judicial arguments, although I could at great length. There were several private members bills over the years pushing for the legal right to die. All of which expired either on the order paper or were defeated because no government was willing to support them. Indeed, no federal government has willingly introduced legislation on the subject and that includes both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The reason why we, unlike say the United Kingdom, have the constitutional right to ask for medical assistance in dying is because we have a charter of rights and freedoms. The charter enabled lawyers to argue the case through three levels of the hierarchical judicial system, eventually persuading the highest court of the land to void the prohibition against assisting a suicide under certain conditions. That void caused the government to act. We must never forget that the people are always ahead of the politicians. That ability to sway public opinion and change attitudes speaks to the power of personal narratives.

And that brings me to my final point. Writing your own stories about dying. In my experience it is mostly the people around the dying who are squeamish about death. The dying understand all too well what is happening to them. While most want to go on living they know the end is coming and they are reflective about their lives, their times, and what is happening to them. Memoir is a major component of bookstore shelves these days and that includes end of life. Consider Morality by Christopher Hitchens. The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt. Half Empty by David Rakoff. And When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. These books are compelling as literature but they also enhance our understanding of what each of us will face someday. As an obituary writer I have talked to many people at the end of their lives. A conversation I will never forget was with William Hutt. We know Hutt as a great actor. But he was also a patriot and a pacifist. He abhorred the idea of shooting anybody. So he volunteered during the second war for the ambulance brigade. Of course that meant that he probably saw more blood and gore than most combatants.

At the horrific Battle of Monte Cassino in the grizzly Italian campaign, Hutt volunteered to cross the battlefield under fire to set up a first aid station and to collect wounded soldiers and drag them to safety. For his actions he was given the military medal in the field. When I spoke with him on a hot June afternoon in 2007 he was completely lucid. But he had an ethereal air as though he had one swollen foot in this world and the other in the next. He was not near death or so his doctors claimed. But fewer than five days later he died to the shock of his friends, colleagues, and this obituary writer. I confess, I had driven back from Stratford and stored my interview tape for another day. So I had to write Hutt’s obituary in the usual deadline scramble. How I wish now that I’d had a video camera in my journalist toolkit that afternoon so that the final interview with Canada’s most majestic actor, a conversation about passivism, patriotism, growing up gay in a rigidly conservative family, and his own death could have been captured for posterity.

I’m going to move back a little bit to Terry Fox. He died long before my time as an obituary writer. I have thought about him long and hard and how he brought cancer out of the closet with his awkward gait and his prosthetic leg as he set off on his run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. I’ve always thought he sensed that his time would be short. And it was. Fox died in June 1981, a month before his 23rd birthday. He had a short life and a long legacy because of his courage and determination to use his own story to make a difference. And I think that’s a really important thing about writing about dying. If you can explain to others about what’s happening to you so that they won’t be so afraid and that maybe they will talk with somebody else. I did write his mother Betty Fox’s obituary 30 years later. The Fox family had declined interviews but I managed to have a conversation with Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Season’s Hotels and resorts and an early champion of Terry Fox and himself the father of a son who died of cancer as a teenager.

Mr. Sharp talked about Terry as the kind of kids who goes through life without anybody noticing them until something happens and they step forward and become extraordinary he said. Adding, “Terry was a remarkable man. Wise beyond his years.” And so was Terry Fox’s mother. In the immediate grief of her son’s death Mr. Sharp persuaded her to become the face of an annual noncompetitive run for cancer research in Terry’s memory. I told Mr. Sharp that every year as the annual run approach I agonized for Betty Fox and how she was forced to relive her son’s death. Mr. Sharp acknowledged that he knew it was hard on Mrs. Fox. But he didn’t feel guilty about putting pressure on her because he said, “The pain was always going to be there. But this was an opportunity that I sensed was going to be good for her for the rest of her life.” Before Mrs. Fox died in 2011 the annual run had raised more than $500 million for cancer research. A huge legacy both for Terry and his mother.

I’m going to do a personal thing now. Terry … Which always breaks me up so I’m sorry. Terry Fox died 16 months before my own mother succumbed to cancer 11 years after she was diagnosed. I won’t tell you how old she was or where the cancer originated because she swore us to secrecy about such private and to her shameful details. At the time I thought she had a good if early death in a hospital bed surrounded by her husband and three of her grown daughters. But now I am haunted by what might have been. What bothers me is that we never talked … This is ridiculous. Sorry. We never talked, my mother and I, about fear, treatment, how she hoped to be remembered or what she wished for her children. I can’t say for certain but I think that is why I was so keen to write about other people and how they were approaching death. I know that in writing my book, A Good Death, I was surprised how often my mother was in my thoughts even though she had died more than 30 years earlier. In the years … I have to have a drink of water. Sorry.

In the years before the momentous Supreme Court decision early in 2015 some brave individuals went public about dying and I had the privilege of writing about a few of them. It included Catalina McMillan, Kim Teske and Cindy Cowan. And of talking with the families of many more who fear they might be prosecuted after a loved one died in the shadows. That was tricky reporting I can tell you. No matter how they died my subject shared a determination to demystify death, to have choices and control, to approve end of life care for others and to protect their families from legal sanctions in the days before MAID was legal. People often ask me how I could write about such morbid topics. But I consider it a privilege. I have learned so much from the courage of the dying and the love and generosity of the grieving. Especially those who reach the difficult acceptance that this is not about my loss but his or her choice. As one widow said to me, “Because I loved him I let him go.”

Let me tell you a bit about Kim Teske. A contact I made through Dying With Dignity. She was the middle of six children of an Ontario man who had died at age 39 of testicular cancer. He died before anybody knew he carried the gene for Huntington’s Disease. By the time I met the Teske family three of the adult children including Kim and at least one of the next generation had tested positive for the fatal neurological disease that combines features of schizotonia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Kim had watched her old brother deteriorate until he was no longer mobile, able to feed or toilet himself or speak coherently. Kim loved life as she told me repeatedly but this was not the way she wanted to live or die. She was determined to stop eating and drinking until she died but first she wanted to tell her story which we did in the Globe with text, video and photographs. Kim, who had [inaudible] of two of her sisters and her mother, all of whom lived near her, wasn’t intending to share her plans with the rest of her siblings. Then Kim and her sisters realized how hurtful it might be for the rest of the family and the extended family to read about her death over their cornflakes one morning and they agreed to share contact information with us.

At first the other siblings, especially Kim’s younger brother, were shocked and bewildered by her plans. But in the end the family came together in a reunion that brought them all closer. It took Kim 12 days to die. Would she have persevered if a team from a national newspaper had not been there tracking her progress? I can’t say for certain. You can read the coverage and make up your own mind but let me say this. I believe that she like Terry Fox had a higher purpose. She wanted to make her mark about choice after being diagnosed with a cruel and fatal disease. The diagnosis came too late for her older brother to make decisions. Her younger sister, one of the happiest people I have ever met, was content to live with her disease but that was not Kim’s way. Writing about death is not the same as reporting on mergers and acquisitions. It is emotional, it is personal, and it is tough. That is a reality I want to emphasize in a talk about writing about death. The need for sharing information. Talking through issues openly. Being aware that emotions will erupt and respecting differences that may never be resolved in your family, in mine, in everybody’s family.

Let me step back for a moment. A key point in the evolution of MAID is who controls dying. Patients or doctors? For example, palliative care, an end of life option I support, can ease pain and mental anguish. But it requires the patient to succumb to the administrations of the palliative care team. And that may well include deep sedation until the patient expires, however long that takes. That is not what many people such as the late Dr. Donald Low or Sue Rodriguez wanted. They both had access to excellent palliative care but what they wanted was choice and control. That same tension applies to storytelling. Who controls the narrative? The subject or the writer? I have written a lot of profiles in my life and a lot of obituaries. I believe that I am a diligent and a careful researcher. But let us have no illusions about who owns the story that you have told me. I will listen carefully. I will think about you and your situation and I will double check facts and dates and interview other sources. But the piece I write will be shaped by my perceptions and storytelling skills. I will not show it to you before it is published.

We can talk about this in more detail later but it is something that you should keep in mind when talking to journalists and that includes obituary writers. There’s an adage that a lady’s name should only appear in a newspaper three times in her life. When she is born, when she is married, and when she dies. That might have been true before the proliferation of social media. Nowadays, birth and wedding announcements are largely posted to the internet and death announcements are not far behind. Although many families still compose and pay for increasingly expensive announcements in the weekend sections of local and national newspapers. Let me be perfectly clear that these announcements are not obituaries. These are press releases to be crude about it. They are written by families. They are not written by journalists. So let me give you some advice about death notices. Take care of yourself first. By that I mean, write your own death notice. Telling the bits you want to emphasize about your own life. Leaving out the parts you want forgotten. Those are for me to find out. And make sure you have filed your death notice along with your other end of life documents where your next of kin can find them.

Believe me, I have spoken to many grieving offspring. Have no clue when mom when dad, where either of them went to university or all sort of pertinent details. If you want your death notice to be accurate, write it yourself and then get somebody you trust to read it over and question anything that is not clear. And don’t be too wordy. It’s expensive. I love intrigue as much or probably more than the next person but I don’t think death notices are an appropriate place to settle scores. I mean although they do get you a lot of attention if you do write something like that. I read a notice the other day about a man that was topped by a picture of him with is four children. Nowhere in the accompanying text was a mention of the children’s mother. My curiosity went into overdrive. Similarly, don’t ignore the first wife out of fear of offending the second or third spouse. I remember writing my father’s death notice and juggling the sentences to allow for the inclusion of two dearly beloved wives while giving precedence to the second one, my stepmother. Finally, how did the person die? I always want to know the cause of death. It gives me a sense of closure.

When I read suddenly, especially if it’s a young person, I assume suicide or a drug overdose. If the death notice says peacefully at a time of his or her choosing I wonder if the deceased chose MAID. I immediately look to see if my assumption is supported by the designated charities. But why the secrecy? Is that what your loved one would have wanted? Frankly, wondering about the cause of death deflects me from thinking about the life of the person who has died. And surely that defeats the purpose of a death notice. Another form of writing about death is a biographical sketch for an unpaid newspaper column or for an internet post. This is more of memoir than an announcement. And my advice here is to follow the five W’s. Ask yourself who, what, when, why and where and answer as completely as possible. After writing your remembrance put it aside for at least a day then read it again with a critical eye. Pretend you don’t know the person you have written about. What is missing? What don’t you understand about this person? Is there a theme? Set aside reticence and push for honesty. Once you have revised your draft set it aside again if you have time and then ask somebody whose writing you respect to read it. If you are like me you will be pretending to demand honesty while really seeking reassurance. That’s a mistake.

You want to make your writing better. Having said that, I will tell you that I trained my husband early on to say, “This is really good, but I do have a couple of suggestions.” Here is something I think we all need to ask ourselves about any piece of writing. Why am I telling you this? What is the point of my story? In journalism we call this the nut graph. It follows the opening anecdote or the breaking news flash. It’s the second or third paragraph in other words. That puts the conclusion near the top followed by the background to the incident or the biographical details of your subject. Academic writing tends to do the reverse with conclusion at the end of the paper. Finally, writing is hard. The easier any essay or memoir is to read and understand is probably an indication of how difficult it was to write. If it is any consolation, it doesn’t get easier because your expectations of yourself get higher. I write to figure out what I think about something. But I know that research is both essential and a delaying tactic before I force myself to stare into the blank screen. I have learned over the years that I am processing while I am procrastinating. I have also learned that grief is something that can wallop you when you lease expect it. But writing through grief, demanding honesty of yourself and your feelings is worth the pain.

And now I would like to hear about your experiences and the problems and rewards that you have encountered in writing about dying. Thank you.

Thank you so much Sandra. That was incredible and it was fascinating to hear about your story and your evolution as a journalist and clearing up all the myths surrounding obituaries was so helpful for us. And I think the inclusion of stories of so many amazing individuals, both those related to the right to die movement and beyond, it was such a fulsome presentation and so appreciate that.

Thank you.

On a personal note, I was so interested by your story about William Hutt. I grew up in Straford and go back often and I see his grave all the time in the cemetery and it’s just this striking sort of raw tombstone and it’s just always nice to reflect and remember him.

Do you remember what it says on his tombstone?

I’m not sure. I don’t know if there’s a specific-

He had already picked it out when I talked with him. You know what, I need to look this up. But I think it says actor and patriot or soldier and patriot. I will look it up. Because that’s all it says.

That rings a bell. I remember there was something brief like that but very powerful. Very interesting story. And we have some questions that came through. Sandra did mention that if you have anything you want to share the chat is open so feel free to put any personal reflections in there and we’ll go through some of the questions and comments. Someone also did share that they appreciate you sharing your mom’s story and I’ll echo that as well. It’s always hard to share those personal moments and we appreciate that as well. So to get started with some of our questions here, this one I thought was pretty interesting. So what are your thoughts when somebody’s publishing a death notice or an obituary when they have a picture of the deceased when they were much younger? So sometimes there’s like wedding pictures or them in their 20s and they died in their 80s. Any thoughts on that?

It’s whatever you want to do. I’m fine with it. I don’t have anything to say about it. Sometimes people do a young picture and an old picture. And sometimes they do a picture of two people. Like the husband and the wife or something. And I think that’s a little strange because it always makes you think did they both die at the same time? It used to be that you never, ever, ever have a picture in the paper at all but I think it’s fine. It depends on what you want to do. The one I mentioned was this man with the four children and they were small and yet no mention of whoever the mother was of these children. I think it’s up to the family but I think a picture of the person … A good picture. Like a recent picture. You don’t want necessarily a picture of someone on a death bed. It’s a choice.

I guess that ties in with the importance of if you as the person who will die eventually as we all will if you have a preference maybe you can express that ahead of time just as Sandra was saying about what you want included, what are those dates or stories that you think are a must include.

And talk about it with your children.

Absolutely. So just a comment. “Sandra Martin that talk was absolutely fabulous. What a gift. You’re an amazing advocate for death and dying and I so appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.”

Thank you.

Sorry. There’s a lot of questions and I’m just going through them here. As somebody who’s looking to write their own obituary or death notice are there five top five things that you should always include or maybe things that are overlooked and you’re looking at an obituary and saying, “Where’s this information? Why didn’t they include such and such?”

Yeah. Some people do not want to put in the age of the person who died. That … Well it doesn’t annoy me but I think you should put your age. What’s the big secret now? You’re gone, right? So I think it’s really important to put birth and death dates. I don’t think you need to put in all the stuff about went to high school here and did this there and so on. You want it to be quite succinct I would think. And it’s a good idea not to leave people out which is one of the reasons it’s important to share with your next of kin. Oh my gosh, I forgot the second child or something. But keep it as short as possible and give a flavor of the person. And I must say that I have written obituaries of people whose death notices caught my eye and they were so well written and they were so interesting that I said I really want to know about that person. I’m not one for saying he’s up there in the stars now. The stars are shining brighter because so and so is left and that kind of stuff. I find that sort of maudlin.

Thanks Sandra. This one was also interesting. Where does the word obituary come from? Do you have any information about the origins of the word?

I think I probably did at one time but I would have to look it up. I can look it up now if you like. I should know that. I beg your pardon. And I think I did know it. But I’ll look it up. I mean, we could all look it up. I mean it’s Latin for something, right?

Yeah. For sure.

It’s probably from the Latin.

Sounds good.

And someone is going to correct us as we go through.

Yeah. So if anybody’s looking it up now and wants to throw that in the chat, you’re certainly welcome to. Oh, somebody … Nicole. Nicole did. Thank you Nicole. Early 18th century from medieval Latin obitus, meaning death. From obit perished.


That is helpful. Thank you.


Great. So what strategies are there for writing obituaries that include somebody who died by suicide?

Well, we never talked about that before and what people would say would be died suddenly and that was a clue. I think there’s more openness now. I mean this is a terrible, terrible, terrible time for a family to have to deal with a sudden death like that. I believe in frankness and I’ve read some very beautiful accounts in the death notices, which are written by families, as I said, in which they talk about the struggle the person had. They talk about how many wonderful qualities this person had but the mental illness was such that they struggled as long as they could and they just couldn’t anymore. I’m not asking for particular details of how the person died. I mean, I think that’s unnecessary. But I don’t see that there’s any reason to deny that. There’s going to be speculation. You might as well stop it. And of course, what happens is people are then afraid to talk to you. I mean how do you greet someone whose child has just died by suicide? What do you say? And I think if it’s out in the open it makes it easier to bring that. I think the worst thing for families is when nobody mentions that their loved one has died for fear of upsetting the person.

I mean, they’re already upset, right? I think they want their loved one not to be forgotten. And that’s why I think it’s good to mention.

Thank you. So switching gears a little to death notices that are humorous. What are your thoughts on this? Is this something that … Has there been a trend that incorporated that a little bit more where people will do something that’s a little less somber and more on the funny side?

There have been a few that have and of course they immediately go viral on the internet. And I enjoy them as much as the next person. I think they’re funny. I would not write such a thing myself. But sure, they’re there and it’s all a big joke and people laugh about it and they like it. They’re irreverent. I much prefer, I would think, an amusing one to something that’s truly maudlin as I mentioned. Has joined the firmament of the skies and the sky is brighter today. I mean, that stuff I think is silly. But you could try writing a funny one. It’s very hard to pull off. I would certainly get someone to read it ahead of time and make sure that they’re not offended.

Good to know. Those are good tips. Thank you.

Let me just see what we have. You touched on this a little bit in your talk about living in a online digital age, lots of social media. What are your thoughts on obituaries and death notices on social media and any etiquette surrounding that? I don’t know. I feel like there’s probably situations where there might be family upset or not happy with certain people sharing those.

I think the question is who gets to tell the news? Who gets to break the news? And I think that can be troubling for families. You’re not a journalist. You’re not a reporter. You don’t need to break the news. I think it would be far better to talk with your family and say, “Do you mind if I post this to the internet?” And sometimes what happens is people post things on the Facebook page of the person who’s died. And that’s so strange. It seems as though the person is speaking from beyond the grave. So I would not want to just break the news. I mean, I would want the immediate family to be able to decide how the news should be released. I mean it’s one thing for a journalist to hear it and say, “Please, I’ve heard that your mother has died. I’m so sorry or whatever. I need to report it.” That’s different from a family member deciding, “Hey, I’m going to be first with the news.” That’s, I think, inappropriate.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. It’s a whole new complication with all the online options and even somebody’s Facebook page then being turned into an in memory page and who decides and who has access. That’s a whole other topic.

And who owns it? Yeah.

Yeah. Exactly.

It’s very difficult.

For sure. I thought this was an interesting one as well. Have you seen cultural differences in how people write obituaries and death notices in terms of content or tone or length even? Any observations there?

Yes. Well, they’re much less formal than they used to be. And one of the things is that I have seen people … Not enough people, but they will say the person died of MAID. And considering this is a dying with dignity thing, I think that MAID is certainly becoming normalized in society. It’s not going to be always the most common cause of death. But I think that should be mentioned. And it’s the way it’s done that is really the way that’s difficult. As I said, when it’s died at a time of his own choosing, in a manner of his own choosing, you sort of say, well, what does that mean exactly? So I’m not for that kind of beating around the bush. I’d like people to be straightforward. I do like to know the cause of death. It doesn’t have to be gory details but yes, I do. I like facts. And I don’t see there’s any point in being squeamish. But I also think that there’s no need to … I don’t know. There is a delicacy about it but the way that things have changed is that they’re less formal. They’re relying less on all those details about won a prize in grade 12 or something. It’s just who was this person, what was important to this person, and give us a sense of that person.

Thank you. What have you observed in the journalism industry lately? Are there a lot of young journalists who are eager to get into the obituary writing or death notice writing field or is it something that very few want to take on?

Well, there are certain things that are good about it and one is you get a little more space than other parts of the paper. People tend not to think about it as a good way of learning how to write. But I know Gay Talese for example, a very famous American journalist, has written about how this was the best job he ever had. He was a court reporter before that so I suppose there is that. But I don’t think it’s what people look forward to doing as young journalists. I mean I certainly didn’t. It never occurred to me that I would do such a thing. And I just wanted to get away from scrutiny. That’s why I sort of did it. I wanted to expand my range. And yet, I found it was very rewarding. And of course, when I was writing obituaries it was at a time when how people were dying was changing and so that became that other whole story which became a new story which is how we got MAID.

I don’t think most journalists … And now of course even getting a job in journalist is such a difficult thing. So a lot of people are going into public relations. They’ve got a journalism degree, which some people actually say is like a general arts degree now. And then they end up writing press releases. I mean, a job is a job.

Thanks Sandra. Somebody asked if you have any recommendations for courses or workshops or anything like that in more creative writing. I think this kind of ties into what you were talking about about some of the memoirs that people have written about nearing the end of life. Are there any courses that you know of? Maybe online ones or something like that that-

Well, I think there are dozens and dozens and dozens of those. There are lots of writing groups. And just a search online and also look at the extension departments of your local university. There’s all sorts of night courses in this, that, and the other. I mean, look for biography, look for memoir and you can fit yourself in there.

There’s been some dialog in different death and dying spaces about using words like passed away instead of died. Do you have any comments on that and how that ties into the work of an obituary writer?

Oh. Yes I do. I hate those cliches. In fact, I remember once writing a column in the Globe about what are all these crazy words, these euphemisms? And some people were offended but I guess that’s okay. I do not understand why people pass away. Or passed is another one. They die. It’s as simple as that. They don’t emerge. They’re born. So I have a list of cliches that I really think are wrong and that you should avoid. I think straightforward … I fear though that sometimes it is so strongly ingrained in people’s minds is that editors can change it. I know one I like to say is survived by at the bottom but some people say leaves to mourn. I don’t know. I don’t like cliches. I’m not saying I never use cliches but I try to avoid them. But yeah, passed is like …

Yeah. Absolutely. People are just afraid of the word die and it’s, I think, a reflection of our society which is not everybody but overwhelmingly pretty death averse. If I don’t talk about it it won’t happen so I’m going to say passed away.


Absolutely. Some more questions coming through. Oh, and we did have somebody chime in with a recommendation about writing courses. This person said the Alexandra Writer’s Center in Calgary has online courses for everyone so there’s an idea for some folks.

And I think if you just went online and did a Google search for courses, you would find them.

For sure. Absolutely.

And check your local university.

Perfect. Someone’s asking, just for … And you touched on this as well but just for another quick breakdown on the differences between eulogy, death notice, and obituary.

Well, an obituary is a piece of journalism. It’s written by somebody who may not know your family or your family member at all who’s going to report a story. Report a life. That’s an obituary. And a eulogy is when you stand up at the funeral and you talk about the person who has died. And that is usually … It’s spoken. I mean it may be written down but it is a spoken tribute or commentary on the person. And they’re very common now. There was a time when they weren’t so common. In fact, I’ll give you an example of one that was quite rousing which is ancient now but I don’t know if you watched the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her brother stood up and gave a eulogy. I mean, the queen was just sitting there stoically. He was talking about the Spencer name was older than the Windsor name and was using that as a threat. These boys, we’re going to protect. Not the way our poor sister was [inaudible]. So that was very … The crowd loved it.

But eulogies are spoken. And death notices are announcements. They’re letting people know that somebody has died. So they can be as long or as short as you care to pay for but basically that’s the difference. And they’re not written by journalists. They’re written by family members. And sometimes funeral parlors. You can get the funeral parlor to do it for you. And they have a certain style that they always use.

Okay. Good to know. When is a good time to start writing your own death notice? Is it something that you should work on over time or when you’ve been given a diagnosis that’s going to have an effect or is it depending on the person?

Well, if you’ve had a diagnosis that is a serious one, that’s probably a good time to start thinking about this. But I also think that as one gets older, not that anybody here is old, it’s really … In the same way that you should have plan A. How am I going to spend the rest of my days? Am I going to stay in this house full of junk? What is my plan for living as well as I can for as long as I can? What are the decisions I’m going to make? So at that point, I would write my death notice but I’d also plan to revise it. In the same way that plan A, which might be great when you’re 70 might be ridiculous when you’re 80, the same thing is true. You might write your first novel when you’re 75. So revise your death notice. But having it done, having it ready is very helpful because who knows what can happen. You can get hit by a car.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Absolutely. And I’ve seen fill in yourself books that kind of focus on, I think more so legacy, but I guess some of that could be tied into death notices as well. Do you think those are helpful for helping people collect their thoughts?

Sure. Well, I just did the five W’s. Who, what, why, when, where. That’s the easiest way to do it. But you can get these books. You can look online and have these things and fill out the forms and so on. And if you plan your own funeral … As in some people are buying plots or buying … Which is incredibly expensive, I must say. But also if you’re buying … Some people want to be cremated and they want their ashes buried in a small plot. At that point, if you’re doing that, you might as well do the rest as well. I mean it’s the same thing as buying your bench. I sometimes think about benches. Have a nice bench in a certain place. But I haven’t done it. I mean, yeah, I’m as bad as the next person. But yes, that’s what you should do.

Thank you. Someone is curious if you’ve ever encountered any disagreement from family or a loved one on any of the obituaries that you’ve written. And if so, how-

Yes, I have.

And how did that go? How did you react and resolve that?

Well, of course I was hurt and sometimes I’ve been angry. I mean I do not like to make mistakes but I do make mistakes. Everybody does. So I’m horrified if I make a mistake. But some people think that they can tell you what to write and they can’t. I mean, my editors could say we’re not printing that I suppose, which has never happened to me. But yes. And really it’s grief. They’re grieving, they’re so upset, and then they read something that they don’t like. And I’m the messenger. So yes, they get upset but they get over it. I don’t intend to hurt people’s feelings but sometimes you do because you’re trying to report the facts. It’s a delicate business. But you can’t sacrifice the facts for somebody’s feelings. I don’t think you need to start … For example, I knew someone … P.K. Page was a wonderful poet. She lived to be, oh, I don’t know, 95 or so. And she had had an affair with the lawyer and poet, F.R. Scott. And she talked to me about that. And she knew that I would write it in her obituary but that I wouldn’t write it while she was still alive.

And when I wrote her obituary, I didn’t put that in the first paragraph. And I asked my editors not to put it in the lead. Because there were so many other things that were important about her. Yes, this had to be there but it wasn’t like it needed to be in the first sentence. So I think that kind of delicacy is important. It’s difficult.

Thanks for sharing that. It’s an area very few of us have experience with so it’s always interesting to get that insight.

So we’re almost done. Going to wrap up in just a few minutes. And I thought that maybe we could just ask a final question to reflect a little bit and you’ve had such … Continue to have such an incredible career with obituary writing, with your book about a good death and MAID and end of life choice. How has all of your work over the last several decades contributed to your own feelings about death and dying? Have you noticed a significant change over the decades?

I hope they’re not that many decades. I will just say I also wrote an obituary book which was called Working the Dead Beat. And then in paperback they changed it to, I don’t know, Great Canadian Lives or something. But it was trying to take people I’d written about … And I wrote a lot of new ones for it too actually because … It was every decade of the last century. And writing about people who sort of moved the story along a bit. But sure my feelings about death and dying have changed radically. I mean, I had no idea that one could have some choice about it. They’ve changed radically. And who knows how I’m going to die. I think a lot about it. I did talk about how my mother died and how we never talked which was really terrible. And I think people worry a little bit about me because they think I might be going to bring it up with them but I don’t talk about it all the time. But I don’t shy away from it. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t mention someone has died because of fear of upsetting someone. They are upset. I’m upset.

I think death … I used to say it was like sex was in the Victorian era. We know what happens, but we don’t talk about it and certainly not in public. Well, I think that’s changing and dying with dignity is one of the reasons that that’s changing. And people coming forward with their stories. These are very powerful things that people are writing about. So yeah, I am more comfortable with the … Well, of course I am getting older. But I guess it’s not … Yeah. I do think about it more and in a different way.

Thank you Sandra. And thank you for joining us this afternoon. We loved having you. We have lots of wonderful comments that came through about your honesty and your insight and just creating this space where we can talk about this area of end of life that we haven’t talked about here at Dying With Dignity Canada. Death notice and obituaries and trying to share a legacy in that way as well. So appreciate you here.

Well, thank you.

And to everybody joining, thank you so much. We are continuing our series of online conference sessions. The next one will be on Tuesday. The link is in the chat and we hope to see you all there. Have a great afternoon everyone.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

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