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The Obit Writer Writes Her Own Obit

Published: 5/24/2012
Gerry Hostetler, who created a long-running obituary column for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, penned her own obit four years ago.

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


Gerry, who died May 13 at age 76, wrote that she started in the Observer's newsroom as a part-time obit clerk (in 1978) and wrote free obits until 1996, when they became classified advertisements. "There was no greener soul on earth," Gerry said, "and I was computer-illiterate to boot."

From the many obits that funeral directors had dictated over the phone, Gerry felt that there were many people whose stories deserved more than the bare essentials. "I would do an occasional obit-news story," Gerry said, "and they became quite popular. That prompted me to envision a column with more information and above all – more warmth."

Her column, “It’s a Matter of Life,” featured the life stories of working class people for the most part. In 2008, she retired after 30 years at the Observer, received Lifetime Achievement honors from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and served as local host for the organization’s conference in Charlotte.

The Observer ran her auto-obituary and also published an obit written by reporter Mark Washburn, which began: For years, people in this town were dying to have Gerry Hostetler write about them.

People who think I write about death are wrong, she’d say. I write about life.


Gerry had a 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 her conservative readers.

She continued writing obits for the Observer as well as Qcitymetro, which serves Charlotte's African American community. Observer editors reprinted Washburn’s article in its family-placed obits section and added the following two sentences:

Newspapers often prepare obituaries in advance for prominent people. Hostetler, no amateur, left one at the office when she retired. It was her own.

***

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

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