News & Politics

“No Reason These Have to Be Dull”

Adam Bernstein was hooked in 1999 by writing his first obit. Photograph by Jay Westcott.

Washington Post readers might mourn the loss of beloved sections: Among the dearly departed are Sunday Style (now combined with Arts), Book World, and Business. But obituaries are having a second coming, thanks in part to Adam Bernstein, their youthful new editor.

“My real love is obit writing,” says Bernstein, 34. “There’s no reason these things have to be dull.”

Raised in Connecticut, the son of doctors, Bernstein seems born to the job. When he walks into a party, he surveys the room and assesses the crowd: “He’s three inches; she’s maybe five inches.”

As in length of obit.

“Ultimately,” he says of obituary writers, “people don’t realize we have more power in this city than anyone. We have some control over how people will be remembered.”

Obit desks aren’t destination jobs for aspiring reporters. At many papers, they’re thought of as a home for cranks and aging writers. Bernstein graduated from the University of Virginia and the Columbia School of Journalism. He wrote his first death tale for a paper in Bakersfield, California, and realized: “This is for me.” He came to the Post in 1999 and was working in the TV section when he heard that an obit writer had died. He applied for the job and became the junior writer. “I worked under the smartest people in the newsroom,” he says.

Such as Richard Pearson. “They called him Noodle,” says Bernstein. “He was the character in the newsroom for 30 years.” And J.Y. “Joe” Smith, a Harvard-educated former war correspondent who once yelled into the phone: “Goddammit, I’m up to my ass in stiffs!” The person Smith thought was an editor on the line was actually a widow.

Bernstein became editor last July. The Post publishes 6,000 local obits a year, from the short ones to the features with photos that Bernstein has advocated.

“We write about anyone who lived a long time in the Washington area,” he says. A “long time” is at least 20 years. In judging whether someone gets five inches or 25, Bernstein weighs facts:

“What’s out there and what does the family know and is willing to divulge?”

What kills obits? “No cause of death,” he says. “Not revealing previous spouses.”

One prominent Washingtonian merited an editorial appreciation but no obit because his widow refused to see his first wife’s name in print.

“People mistake what we do with eulogies,” Bernstein says. “People want to remember only the good things. But you can’t erase major events in people’s lives.”

Is there life for obits in the age of Internet journalism? The New York Times broke the barrier when readers clicked on “Last Word” on January 17, 2007, and saw a video that began: “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”

Bernstein says the Post’s obit blog, Post Mortem, is well read. It allows him and his talented staff writers—Joe Holley, Matt Schudel, and Patricia Sullivan—to gather and publish quirky anecdotes or, as Bernstein did in a recent post, serve up examples of Wikipedia’s factual shortcomings in profiles of the deceased. His new editor, Marcus Brauchli, and Post Company chairman Don Graham are obit fans.

Bernstein lives in Alexandria with his wife, journalist Marina Walker Guevera, and their son. How long does he want to write obits?

“I hope they don’t have to carry me out.”

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.   

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