November 20, 2016 5:26 pm
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What does an obituary writer learn about life from covering the dead? We asked the Globe’s Bryan Marquard, who has written nearly 800 obituaries since switching to that beat three and a half years ago. Every day, he opens a window into the lives of others, how people live, and how they’re remembered.

1. Be nice

Simple enough advice, but we rarely think of it in terms of memories that linger after we’re gone. No matter what you accomplish, how you treat people has a lot to do with how you will be remembered.

2. Don’t be mean

A few months after taking this job, I interviewed the family of a woman who had lived a very long life. “She had a good run,” I said to one of her grown children. “Yeah,” the child snapped, “that’s because she was a Boston Italian. They don’t die.” Turns out the write-up the children sent in was quirky because mom was, well, not nice. I didn’t use that quote in the obit which, by necessity, was shorter than her longevity might have dictated.

3. If you want to live long, retire young …

Parents often share the wisdom of years, and Alfred S. Larkin Sr. offered this gem to his son Michael, a former deputy managing editor at the Globe: “He pulled me aside and said: ‘My advice to you is to retire as soon as you can. I’ve had more fun in the last 10 years than I had in the previous 50.’ He loved being retired.” And he lived to 92.

4. Or don’t retire at all

The artist Polly Thayer Starr started drawing as soon as she could wrap her fingers around a pencil, and she was still conjuring remarkable paintings in her 80s as her eyesight faded because of glaucoma and macular degeneration. When she could no longer see, she memorized poems that friends read aloud. The creative chase kept her going to 101. “It’s the Hound of Heaven,” she told an interviewer from the Smithsonian Institution with a chuckle. “It’s always after you.”

5. You don’t have to be rich — or even have a home

As “Mr. Butch,” Harold Madison Jr. was a household name for tens of thousands of people, many of them college students, who encountered him during the 30 years he lived on the streets of Kenmore Square and along Harvard Avenue in Allston. Some found him menacing, particularly when he tossed back too many beers, but Mr. Butch was so beloved by others that his friends — make that fans — created a Wikipedia entry and a MySpace tribute page, and posted YouTube videos of him rapping. They gave him a Mardi Gras-style parade down the streets of Boston as well. He was homeless. And famous.

6. Act now

Writing about the lives of 800 people who have died turns you into the reporter equivalent of that sage guru in cartoons who sits alone on a mountaintop. The job, people think, must inspire life-changing deep insights, and in a way it has — though I am no better at answering life’s deep unanswerable questions. But because I think about death a lot, I realized last year that if I live exactly as long as my father, I have 25 years left. That epiphany, along with other factors, led me to move from Greater Boston to a small town in Vermont. It’s a long commute to the Globe, but I love where I live. Take it from an obituary writer: Don’t put off what you’ve always wanted to do.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella