The Obituarist

After escaping the World Trade Center on 9/11, I left Wall Street to become a professional obituary writer.

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The author at a cemetery in New Mexico (Courtesy of Steve Miller)

Each morning when I go to work at a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper overlooking Central Park, I sit down at my desk and, usually cheerfully, ask my boss, “Who’s dead?” As an obituary writer for a large media company, I’m privileged to be able to tell some of the most important stories of all.

It’s a rare perch. So people often ask me: Why obituaries? Why dead people? The answer, in short, is the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and my proximity to them. I was in the South Tower working as a Wall Street technologist that day.

I was already an amateur obituarist, an idiosyncratic hobby, perhaps, but one that gave me a lot of satisfaction. I produced GoodBye!, the Journal of Contemporary Obituaries, which was a minor sensation back in the early days of the Worldwide Web. (It’s still online at www.goodbyemag.com.)

I started in journalism in the mid-1980s, working at the (now defunct) Paterson News in New Jersey. Like many newcomers the first thing I did was write obits, routine items submitted by funeral homes.

The night editor’s main advice was, “Don’t get creative!” But I was bored. The New Yorker’s media critic A.J. Liebling once described obituarists as “a frustrated and usually anonymous tribe.” I felt that.

So I got creative and killed several of my friends by making up fictional obits from fictional funeral homes, and putting them in the paper under their name. Then I mailed the victim his obit. I never got caught. Good times.

I wasn’t cut out for conventional newspaper journalism. I went to grad school in anthropology, but dropped out. I temped on Wall Street, then worked full time for Mizuho Bank at the World Trade Center. In 1996 I launched Goodbye! as a zine and then a website. Writing made life feel worthwhile. I wrote funny, I wrote long, I wrote opinionated. I wrote to amuse myself and a couple hundred paper subscribers and a growing throng on the net.

Why obits? I loved biography. I loved research. I loved writing in a form nobody else had taken on as a creative writing project.

I wrote obits of people like Alabama Governor George Wallace, porn star Linda Lovelace and famed human cannonball Mario Zacchini. I aggregated reports of deaths of interesting animals and deaths of stupid people (“Darwinian Events.”) Did you know that Iron Eyes Cody, the Indian who cried in a famous public service ad when somebody threw a McDonald’s bag out of their car window, was the son of an Italian bricklayer?  GoodBye! readers did. I was profiled in the Washington Post, quoted in the New Yorker and I addressed the annual Great Obituary Writers Convention.

Then came 9/11.

One thing that nearly changed didn’t: I was still alive. My bank was on the 80th floor of the South Tower. United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower somewhat below our floor shortly after 9 am but by then I and most of my coworkers were already many floors below, having run to the stairwells moments after the North Tower was struck about 15 minutes earlier. 

The rest was a horror show — escaping down crowded staircases while doomed firemen walked up, watching the South Tower collapse from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, trudging home amid a snow of debris from the fallen towers. I ran into my wife on the street: our brownstone building had been evacuated after a (false) bomb scare.

In the months following we patched together some kind of normal life. I helped relocate my company to offices near Times Square. When the bank laid me off amid a downsizing in June of 2002, I shook my boss’s hand and thanked him. I was sick of working for a Wall Street bank.

Flash forward to January of 2003, my wife was expecting a baby and the severance payments had ended. We had somewhat insanely bought a vacation house in the Catskills after I was laid off and were paying a mortgage in addition to rent on the Brooklyn apartment. I was in an advanced round of interviews for a new tech job on Wall Street — a job I dreaded.

Months earlier I had also sent some clips from GoodBye! to the New York Sun, a then-new daily newspaper in Manhattan. Perhaps I could sell them freelance obits?

On January 7, my wife and I were having lunch at a diner in Brooklyn Heights when her water broke. We rushed home to grab the bag she had packed weeks earlier. The phone rang. It was Ira Stoll, the Sun’s managing editor. He wanted to talk about a job writing obits.

“You called at the worst possible time,” I told him. He laughed with the donkey bray that anyone who worked at the Sun will remember.

It was a boy, born on Elvis’s birthday.

A month later Stoll offered me precisely half what I’d made on Wall Street to become the Sun’s first obituaries editor. I took the job, and didn’t look back. 

Fast forward once more to 2006, when I was interviewing for an obituary-writer position (the paper’s first) with The Wall Street Journal.

The first question from the WSJ’s international news editor Marcus Brauchli: “So, still making things up?”

I had written an account about my old antics on GoodBye! and my future editor (he hired me anyway) had read it.

Stunned he’d found my obscure online confession, I stuttered something about how real details of lived lives were much more interesting than anything I could invent. After 9/11, that much was clear. 

Stephen Miller, formerly of The New York Sun and The Wall Street Journal, writes obituaries for Bloomberg News. He’s on Twitter @obitsman.

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