Faith on obituary beat: Paul Vitello’s shift at the NYTs

One of my first assignments during a newspaper internship in college was obituaries, fairly tedious writing with no byline for a much desired clip. I will never forget how my editor emphasized how people really do read them and if you get something wrong, family members, already distraught by the loved one’s death, will confront you pretty quickly. Pressure, much?

When a prominent leader dies, we often notice obituaries that either miss or misunderstand the religion side of a prominent figure’s life. But in recent months, I began to notice a new name on the obituary beat at New York Times: Paul Vitello, who used to cover religion.

The Times‘s Public Editor Arthur Brisbane recently wrote on the obituary process at the newspaper, noting the process for how Vitello would cover someone like a lady in Iowa who sculpted cows out of butter.

I talked with Vitello about the idea of the capturing someone’s life in an article, especially when people might expect too much from an obituary. “Obituaries, as the Times presents them, are not necessarily efforts to capture the totality of our subjects’ lives,” Vitello said in an e-mail. “The focus is on capturing the aspects of their lives that most affected history, or the culture, or the fabric of a profession in which they were highly regarded.”

If you can’t necessarily capture every detail, then, how might an obituary writer treat the faith of a public figure’s life?

“If religion was part of a subject’s public life–if he or she made it known that religion was the driving force of the thing they did that affected history, or culture, or the other fields of endeavor I referred to above–then religion is part of the obit,” he said.

Vitello is not on the religion + obituary beat or any other specialty, but based on his religion beat experience, he has covered a few religion-related obituaries. For instanced, he covered the deaths of Vatican Envoy Archbishop Pietro Sambi and “The Death of God” theologian William Hamilton. But not everything necessarily warrants a mention of faith, he said.

“If on the other hand, say, the subject was a deeply religious person, whose values were informed by his or her religious faith, but who was private about it and acted in the public realm without bringing that fact to bear — then it is much less likely to be part of the story,” he said.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. For instance, Vitello wrote about novelist Doris Betts, who did not call herself a Christian writer but wrote with a deeply religious sensibility. He noted that she suggested once that she was frustrated at how little book critics ever said about the religious themes in her work.

Vitello told me his experience covering religion makes him a more alert to uncovering just how much religion played in someone’s life than he otherwise might have, had he come from another beat.

On the other hand, as a writer and reporter you have to weigh to what extent religion is relevant to the story. An example that comes to mind was an obit about a woman who was the daughter of the unmarried Loretta Young and Clark Gable, who was married to someone else at the time.

Young, who was Catholic and refused to have an abortion; adopted the woman, named Judy Lewis, and only later in life acknowledged her as a natural daughter. Gable never acknowledged her. I received mail from readers on that story complaining that I had not made ‘enough’ of Loretta Young’s decision as a Catholic not to have an abortion. In the context of the story, it was certainly a fact worth mentioning, which I did. But it was not a story about Loretta Young. It was about her child, and the strange life into which the child was born as a result of the social mores of the time, which made it impossible for Young to have her baby openly.

I imagine that a religiously-inclined writer could have made poetic use of the fact that Judy Lewis might not otherwise have travelled the long strange trip she successfully and fruitfully travelled, except for her mother’s decision. But that would not have been an obituary. It would have been something else.

Obituary writers, he says, could learn from religion writers in how to find invisible threads of religious tradition sometimes beneath the surface of extraordinary acts and public lives. In reverse, religion writers could learn from the obituary beat about a common sense of purpose that extraordinary people seem to have.

“Sometimes it is driven by religious sensibility, sometimes it is not,” Vitello said. “But in the lives of many of the really great people I have written about, I get a sense of a desire they all share to reach across every line of ‘identity’–religious, ethnic, gender, age–to achieve some kind of beachhead in the universal heart.”

Given that death often conjures up curiosity over what one believed about the afterlife, it’s nice to hear how a reporter might work through whether faith is relevant to every obituary.

Image of newspaper stack via Shutterstock.

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  • Bill

    …if you get something wrong, family members, already distraught by the loved one’s death, will confront you pretty quickly.

    Yes, which raises the question of what the purpose of an obit is: a eulogy, a hagiography, a history, or a bit of all three? I remember a family complaining that all the grandchildren weren’t named – all 21 of them!

    Whether or not they make it into the obit, there are often enticing clues about the dear departed’s persona, like the plastic surgeon’s collection of native instruments collected over a lifetime of medical missionary work. And I remember the epitaph chosen by a prominent trial attorney: I need more time to prepare my case. Motion denied.

  • Jerry

    My larger question is about his reassignment. I assume it means that religion coverage at the Grey Lady is decreasing along with such coverage almost everywhere else. Or is there another explanation for the reassignment?

  • Julia

    THEY pour in by the dozens every day: reports of the dead from near and far. Daniel Slotnik, a news assistant, handles them, including the heartfelt pleas from family members hoping their departed loved one will be elevated to that special form of life after death: an obituary in The New York Times.

    From the above it appears the guy writes up notices of notable people who have died, not Tom the guy who works at Starbucks.

    My hometown paper has an obituary section that is written according to material provided by the family, and sometimes a separate short article by a reporter if the person is well-known in the community. The St Louis Post Dispatch still has the written-by-family type of obit as well as the occasional one written by a reporter.

    Are we to assume then that the NYT doesn’t have do-it-yourself obituaries any more? Almost all the ones I see are very careful to list all the grandchildren and where they live. Old family friends want to know that kind of thing and many families treat these notices as family history. Geneologists are very fond of them as sources. Lots of them will say a few words about the person’s religious affiliation and the importance of faith in their life.

    On the other hand, I very rarely see any mention of religion in a reporter-written obituary unless, as the guy says, the person was publicly identified with religious matters.

    I always liked the obituaries of notable people in the Times (of London) before there was a pay-wall. Gotta love the British eccentrics that are portrayed with such subtle, dry wit. Religion is almost never mentioned.

  • Ann Rodgers

    At the Post-Gazette it’s a requirement to have a local news obituary — written by a reporter — every single day. We all take turns writing them. I do most of the more conspicuously religious ones, plus an occasional other one. One of our standards is that the person didn’t have to be widely known, but we look for people who made an impact on the lives of others, sometimes through volunteer work or civic activism. You get a lot of religious folk that way.
    At my editors’ request, I wrote our in-house guide for writing obits, which I called “Bring Out Your Dead.” I advise other reporters that pastors are often wonderful sources, both because they’ve been collecting anecdotes for the funeral sermon and because they often continue seeing retired people long after they’ve dropped away from public life.