"People who think I write about death are wrong. I write about life."

Newspapers often prepare obituaries in advance for prominent people. Obit writer Gerry Hostetler left one at the office when she retired  her own.

Hostetler, who died May 13, 2012, at 76, was no amateur obituarist. She created a long-running obituary column for the Charlotte Observer.

Per the obit she wrote for herself, in 1978 "she started in the Observer's newsroom as a part-time obit clerk and wrote free obits until 1996, when they became classified advertisements."

"There was no greener soul on earth ... and I was computer-illiterate to boot."

From the many obits that funeral directors had dictated to her over the phone, Gerry believed that there were many whose stories deserved to be told more broadly. She began writing an occasional news obit ("they became quite popular") and envisioned a column with "more information and above all – more warmth."

Her column “It’s a Matter of Life” featured the life stories of ordinary people, working class for the most part, and Gerry's down-home, folksy writing style that reflected her Southern charm. Writing as an obit columnist and not just as a reporter, she tended to inject her personal commentary, in case her readers didn't get the significance of a person's life based on the facts alone.

She often wrote about people who were widely considered "out of the mainstream." One of the most memorable was the story of a female impersonator. Gerry celebrated the man's life and lifestyle rather than portray him as someone who might have seemed odd to conservative readers.

Gerry retired in 2008 after 30 years at the Observer. That same year she received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.

Gerry Hostetler displays her Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (Photo courtesy of SPOW)

Gerry displays her Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW)

She continued writing obits for the Observer as well as Qcitymetro, which serves Charlotte's African American community. When she died, the Observer ran her self-written obituary and also published an obit written by reporter Mark Washburn.

"For years, people in this town were dying to have Gerry Hostetler write about them..."

After her death, people flocked to the online condolence book to write about Gerry Hostetler and what she meant to them. Friends, colleagues, obituary readers, and even family members of people who Gerry wrote about have shared tributes.

"I made a point of reading Gerry's beautiful obits in the Observer. I never knew the people, but ended up wishing I had, thanks to Gerry's ability to find such interesting things to say..."

~ Linda Davis, Gastonia

"About five months ago, Ms. Hostetler wrote a beautiful tribute to my mother, Christine Long Nance ... Ms. Hostetler had all of the needed attributes (an attentive ear, a genuine, caring and compassionate spirit and a sense of humor and style) ... May she rest in peace knowing that her tributes have brought and continue to bring joy and elation to many loved ones' survivors."

~ Deborah Nance, Charlotte, North Carolina


This post was contributed by Alana Baranick, a freelance obituary writer. She was the director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers before she passed away in 2015.