Obituary writer Sam Roberts had just gotten a new assignment from his New York Times editor. “He said, ‘I just want to let you know that five Times reporters have written advanced obituaries on David Rockefeller…and they’re all dead,'” said Roberts, for the New York Times, speaking at a NYU journalism panel on Writing Death.
Writing Death was a panel discussion moderated by acclaimed journalist Pete Hamill joined by Sam Roberts and Katie Roiphe discussing their experiences with writing about death. Roberts added a sense of certainty to the event, while Roiphe, author of The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, a book which studies death, provided a more philosophical view on the subject.
Each discussed some of the quirks of obituary writing. “Ed Koch’s video obituary is just him saying ‘Do you miss me yet?’ said Roberts. Roiphe revealed that she first thought of the idea for her book at the age of 12 when she lost part of her lung and had to spend one year in a hospital. Although Hamill was the moderator, he expertly navigated the fine line between aiding in transitions and overtaking the conversation, providing insightful comments when he deemed necessary. “In the end, the cause of death is always life,” he said.
They focused on the concept of an obituary celebrating life, but mourning death.
There were about 100 people in attendance. After the speaking portion of the event, audience members enthusiastically passed around the lone microphone to ask the speakers questions.
“Andrew Solomon once said, ‘The transience of life is the engine of its meaning.’ What does that mean to you?” asked a middle-aged man in the audience.
“Freud believed that the fact that you will die makes life incredible,” said Roiphe, while Roberts opted for a more anecdotal answer, “One of the thousands of obituaries I wrote was about a woman novelist who wrote a book about an immortal family. She prayed that she would never be immortal because the end of life gives life more meaning,” he said.
However, despite the grim subject matter of the panel discussion, one of the highlights of the night was not something that was said, but rather something that was felt. Hamill, Roberts and Roiphe conversed with such ease that at times, discussing death seemed like commonplace conversation between old friends. An audience member asked all three of them, “Who would you trust to write your obituary?”
“Pete,” said Roberts immediately, and without missing a beat— “Sam,” replied Hamill. “Oh my god, now I’m left with nobody. I’ll let Sam do it,” said Roiphe.
“Heavy burden,” said Roberts.
The evening concluded with Hamill paying homage to three members of the journalism community who have died this year: Gwen Ifill, Carl Pelleck and Dick Oliver.
“We should mourn their deaths and celebrate their lives,” he said.