What the Obituary Writer Knows About Life

Just because Heather Lende writes obituaries doesn’t mean she writes about death.

Quite the opposite.

“When I only have 500 or 600 words, the death is just a sentence,” she says. “The rest of the story is how they lived.”

And did they ever live. There was Evelyn Arbuckle, who survived a plane crash, ran a bed and breakfast, and grew beautiful petunias. And Lowell Knutson – “Knute” to his friends – the logger who read Longfellow during lunch breaks and didn’t hold grudges. “Well, that was then and this is now,” he’d say.

Over 20 years, Ms. Lende has written 400, maybe 500 obituaries for the Chillkat Valley News, a weekly paper serving the 2,500 people in and around close-knit Haines, Alaska. Ms. Lende’s husband, Chip, owns the lumberyard, and she is a regular at the Community Center’s Morning Muscles class. Plenty of times the obituaries she writes are people she knows or knows of.

Ms. Lende gets that you may find her work depressing. “But compared to front page news,” she’ll tell you, “most obituaries are down-right inspirational.” They aim to capture how people lived in this place, in this time.

Of course everybody wants to know if she’s learned any secrets to a life well-lived. Love, she says. Be good to one another. It’s that simple, she says, and that hard.

But really, she believes, an obituary isn’t some final judgment. We’re each writing our own obituary by how we live every day.

Even after 20 years of this, Ms. Lende still sees death as a blow. And it should be that way, she says.

“It should wake us up to how we really want to live.”

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