Obituary Guide

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

Brandon Sun, September 29, 2007

David McConkey

Around the time he turned 100 years old, Harold Gray set a goal of living to 105. He was a successful businessman and community leader in the small town of Brush, Colorado. But Gray had just one more objective he wanted to accomplish before he died . . . 

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The life story of Harold Gray is one of 42 obituaries of everyday people in a new book by Colorado newspaper reporter Jim Sheeler. Obit:  Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives is a compilation of feature obituaries that Sheeler wrote for the Rocky Mountain News.

Newspapers have always published the obituaries of the rich and famous. The book Obit is part of a recent trend to also highlight the lives of ordinary people.

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Dennis Roling always loved animals; as a child he held funeral services for neighborhood pets when they died. When he grew up, he worked at the Denver Zoo, where he sang lullabies to the animals in his care. Just before he died at 47, Roling was at a public talk when the speaker asked each one of the audience to identify a positive aspect of their personality. He immediately knew exactly what to say .  . . 

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Philadelphia Daily News reporter Jim Nicholson was one who popularized the common person obituary. In the 1980s, he started writing feature obituaries of ordinary people chosen at random.

Everyday people, it turns out, can be written about in interesting ways. Concluded Nicholson about his style of interviewing: “There aren’t any boring people, there are just boring questions.”

Other publications have also taken up the practice. “Lives Lived” in The Globe and Mail profiles the obituaries of regular people, written by a friend or relative.

Recently Maclean’s began to feature the obituary of an ordinary person in each issue. Appearing on the very last page of the magazine, it is appropriately titled “The End.”

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Daniel Seltzer died at just 15, but he packed a lot of living into his short life. Having a brilliant mind, he was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At eight months old, he was underneath the kitchen sink, unscrewing the pipes. At one year, he was taking apart cameras. But as a teen, he took the time to write something to share with others after he was gone . . . 

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Newspapers and magazines are discovering that there is real “news” in these previously unreported stories. Turns out that a community is shaped and sustained not only by a few leads, but also by a full cast of characters.

As well, these obituaries are popular with subscribers who can easily identify with the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of other regular people.

“Thank you, Maclean’s,” writes one reader in a letter to the editor about “The End” feature. Continues the reader, “The real heroes in this world are not movie stars, business tycoons and professional athletes. Rather they are the average Joes and Janes who painstakingly and clumsily plod through life, trying to better themselves, while gently sowing seeds of kindness, hope, and love.”

Obit:  Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People who Led Extraordinary Lives would be a great book for anyone who delights in accounts illuminating the human condition.

Author Jim Sheeler is an excellent writer. He recently received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about an officer in the Marines who helped the families of his comrades who had been killed in the war in Iraq.

“When I began writing obituaries,” says Sheeler in the book’s introduction, “my goal was to write about people whose names had never appeared in the newspaper, to find the stories that had never been told – and, just as important, the lessons they left behind.”  

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Patricia Wagster lived a hard life. She raised four children on her own and supported herself as a bartender. When she died at 50, however, she had finally found a place where she felt at home . . .

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“When interviewing friends and relatives,” reports Sheeler, “one of the questions I always ask is, ‘What did you learn from this person’s life?’”

“For me, the answer is simple: these people teach me how to live.”

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See Also:

Obit on     (Obit on

Tours, Book Bring Cemetery to Life

“Memoir Man” a Born Storyteller

How to Write a Life Story

Memoir Writing: Ten Tips

Six Words To Describe A Life?

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