It’s me again, sorry.
I’m the jagoff you saw the other day at your sister’s funeral, scribbling in my notebook across the street. Though it might have seemed I was heartlessly documenting things, like some nature writer in a small-town wilderness, I was hardly doing that. I was waiting for you to tell me what it all meant.
You wanted to punch my face in. I can’t say I blame you—I’d also likely be frustrated and angry if I were in your place. But that’s not what I, or any of the newspeople covering the funeral, wanted. We just wanted to make some sense of it all.
We journalists write what people are compelled to read. “If it bleeds, it leads,” a trade magazine editor of mine says with chagrin. He doesn’t like it and neither do I. But there is finality to a death, coupled with an urgency to it, which interests readers. It’s something that we can all relate to, in some way, because we all will experience it some day.
I sometimes feel guilty knowing that people’s personal losses are “stories” for me. The detached perspective and feigned objectivity that we journalists attempt to bring to these tragedies also seems to jar with the reality of the death of the person.
But with every untimely death that I cover, I take a jab at achieving some brief immortality for myself in print. The death of a former Steeler was the subject of my first Reuters story, and the tragic death of your sister was my first story for Newsday.
I didn’t choose the assignment, but I didn’t refuse it, either.
The murder several years ago of John, a local tradesman, was my first page one story in a newspaper where I once worked. My editor at the time, Tony, hollered over that he was going to need me to cover John’s viewing.
“Man, that is not right,” I said. “You’re asking me to capitalize on this guy’s death, and on his family’s pain.”
Tony looked over at me and shook his head. “I know, it stinks. But we need you to go up there and cover his viewing today, and we’re probably going to need you to cover the funeral tomorrow.”
“I don’t think it’s right,” I said. “What purpose will it serve, besides increasing the pain of the relatives?”
“The public wants to know. And maybe you can help the family get some closure,” he said. “Maybe you can help bring some meaning to his death.”
I was doubtful. But I tried to wrench some “meaning” from the viewing and the funeral. I think I did an OK job on the funeral story, but I know I still failed. There aren’t enough words, or enough time, to really explain a person’s life, after that person is gone.
But we journalists must to try to explain these lives, and it often pains us to do so. We telephone for interviews with the grieving parents of 17-year-olds killed in car crashes, and the children of parents gone too soon. Sometimes, we ask for quotes in person, and we can enrage relatives for asking questions so soon after their loved one’s death.
Please forgive our bad manners.
While I was standing in the sun across the street from your sister’s funeral, I talked with a photographer who said he wouldn’t mind if someone took a picture of him grieving for his mother.
“If they were ever going to take my picture, that would be the time I’d care the least about it,” he said. “In a way, it’s sort of a compliment that we’re here. Thousands of people want to know about this person’s death.”
Often when we journalists cover a person’s death, it is the one moment in that person’s time on earth when he or she is simultaneously affecting thousands of people. Because of that, it’s important for relatives and friends of the deceased to seize the moment to tell us reporters and photographers what their loved one meant to them, and what that person’s death means to the world.
We are all, in our own ways, searching for a greater meaning to our lives. And sad as it can be, losing a loved one can sometimes help us to find those deeper truths.