How to write a newsletter about the dead

After months of planning, writing obituaries and listening to our audience, my fellowship with the Tampa Bay Times is approaching something I’m really excited about — the launch of a weekly obituaries newsletter.

How They Lived should launch this month. I’ve been writing some practice issues each week. 

Here are some lessons I’m applying from this beat and my coverage of local news at Poynter:

Be interesting

How many newsletters do you subscribe to? How many do you actually open? What’s the difference between the ones you open and the ones you leave to wither in your inbox? For me, it’s knowing I’m going to learn something interesting (also potentially important, alarming, life-saving, funny, depending on the newsletter.) It starts with sharp subject lines. Obituaries can feel, because of what they really are, sad. But they’re also full of fantastic details that capture the personality that was lost. I started a whole Instagram on this a while ago. Each week, we’ll include links to obits that run in the Times or other area funeral home web sites. Here are a few that I liked:

  • Pranee, 80, of Tampa, died Oct. 12 and “being very attractive, she caught the eye of many officers, and that attraction didn’t escape the newly arrived Air Force Captain, Robert “Bob” Thompson in February 1967. She was a proper lady and was “not interested” in Bob’s requests for a dinner date, but she continued to receive requests from him for several months. As a result of Bob’s persistence, Pranee reluctantly agreed to go to dinner with him under one condition; she required a chaperone. On that fateful night, her chaperone didn’t show, but with much deliberation she decided to keep her commitment and go into the restaurant. They were married a few short years later in Bangkok at the Ampour on March 24, 1969 and she never looked back.”
  • Andre, of Tampa, died Oct. 16 and “was the baby of 11 children that ruled over all of her siblings.”
  • Janet, 79, of Largo, died Sept. 25 and “would dress up for any occasion or holiday and was not afraid to wear a dilly-bopper or two.”
  • Jack, 90, of Tampa, met his wife, Allison “when a friend accidentally got him a date with the wrong blonde. She turned out to be the exactly right one.”
  • Mimi the dog, who died Sept. 26, “had a long happy life.” 

Keep it simple

When I first launched my Poynter newsletter, Local Edition, a few years ago, I had a master plan. Each week would build on the one before through a four-week cycle, creating a conversation and lessons around a monthly topic. I tied my own hands until I realized I was the only one who cared about that structure, the day I sent it or time it arrived in readers’ inboxes. There may be newsletters with huge audiences that are punished for straying from their habits, but mostly I’ve found people forget about you until you pop into their inbox. With How They Lived, we plan to share a little background on a reported obit, some details from paid obits and the Times coronavirus obits collection, and then, well it will depend on the week, the feedback, the world at that moment. There’s a template, which mostly exists in my head, but it’s built out of rubber bands and ready to stretch with our readers.

Use the archives

The Tampa Bay Times has a rich history of reported obits that I’ll reshare (which sends people back to the site and toward the ultimate goal of converting digital subscribers.) The really old obits are also fascinating. Take, for instance, a remembrance of Jack Kerouac’s that ran in The St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 1969.


Create community by listening

One of the things that obituaries do is help remind us what we have in common, whether it was a neighborhood or school or love of a hobby or a way of approaching life. I want to know things like what are people’s earliest memories of funerals? What details do they hope people will remember about them? What are different traditions around death that we can learn from?

I plan to ask each week, and I hope subscribers will answer.

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