Ode to an Obituary Writer, a Dying Breed

Jay Levin, New Jersey’s last obit writer, mourns the passing of his breed.

Photo illustration by Andrew Ogilvie

“Who died?” For 10 years, I sought to answer that question for readers of the Record, penning obituaries of 1,200 North Jerseyans.

There was Rochelle Park’s Viola Wyrovsky, who knitted Christmas socks for her five children and 23 grandkids and great-grandkids. And Roger Bowne, a hulking machinist whose habit of going out in women’s clothing made him the most recognizable citizen in Pompton Lakes.

There was Patricia Travers, who walked away from a glittering, globe-trotting career as a concert violinist at age 23 and lived the rest of her long life as a reclusive Clifton landlady. And John C. Kucks, a sales executive from Hillsdale who, like Travers, did not dwell on his youthful exploits. Pitching for the Yankees, 23-year-old Johnny Kucks shut out the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series.

The beat gave me a fascinating window into the human condition. And it was far from grim toil. After all, obituaries are about the lives, not the deaths. In researching the life, the writer digs for details (the paper’s coincidentally named morgue, as the archive was called, was a frequent haunt) and reaches out to loved ones, acquaintances and, in the case of the lonely and mysterious Roger Bowne, townsfolk who knew him only as Roger the Cross Dresser.

“Can you tell me about your mom? I’d like to write an obit about her for the paper,” I’d often say over the phone. Nine times out of 10, the interview went on and on. Recalling the departed is cathartic for those left behind—and I was all ears.

Death is a topic of conversation in all neighborhoods, all towns. Think of what grabs our attention and what we yak about with others: the Starbucks that’s coming to Main Street, the roads they’re finally repaving, the property taxes that keep rising. And when the jovial guy who ran the ice cream parlor passes away—in Westwood that was Jim Pouletsos of Conrad’s Confectionery—we feel sadness and turn to someone and say, “Did you hear who died?”

You’d think, then, that obituaries of extraordinary and ordinary folks—your neighbors—would be a mainstay of local news coverage, and that someone would be tasked with writing them.

You’d be wrong.

Forgive the wordplay, but local obituary writers are a dying breed. My layoff a year ago left New Jersey with none.

Yes, newsrooms have fewer of everybody these days, and obits may not generate a ton of web traffic or appeal to the younger demographic that big media companies covet. You can still pick up the paper and find a page or two of death notices, those formulaic blurbs that cost grieving families hundreds of dollars and help plump up the corporate bottom line. But they only scratch the surface of the people they memorialize. You won’t learn, for instance, that Viola Wyrovsky, Nana Socks to her family, did her knitting while watching game shows on TV. Or that Roger the Cross Dresser liked miniskirts, the shorter the better.

For that, you need the obituary writer. Just try finding one.

Jay Levin wrote more than 1,200 obituaries for the Record of North Jersey from 2006 to 2017. He lives in Teaneck and recently began working part-time as the doorman at a funeral home.

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