Newspaper journalism has been described as the first draft of history. For the people Mark Zaborney writes about, the obituary pages are the last draft.
Mr. Zaborney has been writing obituaries for The Blade for 32 years now, and while he also handles other reporting assignments, it is his bylined obituaries for which he is best known by Blade readers.
“For me,” he says, “obituaries are the history of the community, one person at a time.”
It is a history that he takes very seriously, researching Blade files, interviewing family members, talking to funeral directors, gathering what he can of the deceased’s life story, and writing it on deadline.
He has no involvement with the classified advertising obituaries, in which families are free to include what they want and leave out what they don’t. He writes only news obituaries, and he feels a responsibility to be thorough and factual.
Usually the individual chosen for a news obit has some measure of prominence in the community as a public figure. It might be an elected official. It might be an educator who impacted thousands of lives over the years. Or it may simply be someone who has a fascinating story. Nearly everyone does.
Mr. Zaborney joined The Blade in 1984 after several years at the Detroit Free Press as a copy person (the term “copy boy” had already been discarded). He didn’t set out to become an obituary writer. He sort of gravitated toward it.
“I’m a bit of an introvert,” he says, “and I have always preferred the inside stuff, working the phones.”
Nobody works the phones better than he does. His conversations with the family of the deceased often take half an hour or more, and his comforting, soothing style puts the family at ease during a difficult time.
“I always write out my questions ahead of time so I don’t forget to ask.”
J.Y. Smith, former obituaries editor of the Washington Post, once noted that “the occasion for obituaries is death, which is sad. But the subject of obituaries is life itself, which is wonderful.”
It’s a philosophy that Mr. Zaborney embraces.
He likes to include what he calls “family lore” in his obituaries, but drawing it out can occasionally take an unexpected turn. Sometimes he'll ask a son or daughter a question about the deceased and the response will be one of sad surprise and regret that there is no answer.
“It’s sort of ‘Gosh, I don’t know and now I guess I never will,’ ” Mr. Zaborney explains. In other words, the children never asked about the shades of gray in their parents’ lives and suddenly any chance for that conversation is gone.
He also encounters the occasional family feud, forcing him to walk a fine line between his obligation as a reporter and the need to be fair to all involved. Even an unsavory episode from an individual’s past must be dealt with if it’s pertinent to the story.
After 32 years and thousands of obituaries, Mr. Zaborney has a mutual comfort level with Toledo-area funeral directors. They help him do his job by preparing the family for his phone call if a news obituary is in the works. “Thank God for cell phones,” he says.
Surely there must be obituaries that stand out. One which he remembers well was the obit for a former Blade colleague, longtime and beloved reporter and columnist Seymour Rothman, who passed away three years ago.
Here is the first paragraph of Mr. Zaborney’s obituary in the June 5, 2013, Blade:
“Seymour Rothman, who in his 55-year Blade career brought an array of real-life characters to the printed page — mobsters and numbers runners and stars of the gridiron, screen, and boardroom — but who also captured the humor and poignancy among everyday Toledoans, died Tuesday in Toledo Hospital. He was 99.”
That’s how you tell a story, folks. That’s how you avoid a dry and dreary recitation of facts and figures.
“I was able to put Seymour’s voice in the obit,” he said. “I could quote from his writing. I even quoted his retirement letter.”
Though Mr. Zaborney is often touched by the lives he writes about, he remembers his first responsibility is to professionalism. In other words, despite what he calls the “instant intimacy” he and the family establish together, he does not go to visitations and he does not go to funerals.
Journalists who do what he does even have their own organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.
Don’t call Mark Zaborney’s journalistic specialty a “death notice.” It’s a craft that is very much about life.
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.