If there has ever been a star in the world of obituary writing, it is Margalit Fox.
After 14 years and more than 1400 published obituaries, Fox retired from her post at The New York Times the only way that seemed fitting: by writing her own obituary.
“For this obituary writer, the end has come”, the article, written on June 28th of 2018 begins.
“I don’t mean, thankfully, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns — the ‘end’ I’ve written about in more than 1,400 obituaries for The New York Times. I mean the end of my career at this newspaper.”
Fox wasn’t just a journalist. She was an artist. Where her colleagues saw the obits as a dead end posting, Fox embraced the opportunity to celebrate the lives of passed community members with a reverence and joy rarely seen in print before.
Despite nobody truly wanting the job in obits, it was a full-time job at one of the leading newspapers in America, meaning securing it wasn’t as simple as walking up to the front desk and presenting a resume. Fox worked 10 years at the Times’ Sunday Book Review copy desk as an editor, looking for a way in.
“I pined for a writing job, and as my years on the copy desk wore on, I feared my own epitaph would say little more than ‘She changed 50,000 commas into semicolons’.”
The opportunity came when obituary news editor Marvin Siegel began to commission ‘advanced’ obits for notable New York citizens. Fox jumped at the chance, and in her spare time would produce dozens of pieces.
They were what ultimately got Fox the job in 2004, when a staff job finally opened up. At the time, Fox was in her early 40s, and had zero experience as a reporter. But her dedication over the years, her passionate interest, and ability as a storyteller were what ultimately landed her the position.
“Writing daily obits only reinforced what I had long suspected: It is the best beat in journalism. The reason is simple: In following their subjects from cradle to grave, obits are the most narrative genre in any daily paper. For a writer, there is little better than being paid to tell stories.”
Fox would tell the stories of great and famous people over her career, including Maya Angelou and Betty Friedan, but it was “history’s backstage players”that Fox liked exploring the most. She wrote of everyone from Zelma Henderson, the black Kansas beautician who was the last living plaintiff in the landmark Brown vs Board school desegregation case of 1954, to Don Featherstone, inventor of the lawn flamingo.
In writing her own obituary, Fox has joined the ranks of backstage players whose unique and impactful work might otherwise have gone uncelebrated. Nobody grows up wanting to write for the obits, but Fox recognised an ability to put her storytelling to use in a way few had ever thought possible. And though she’s retired, she remains a storyteller, focusing her time these days on writing book. The publication of her third, Conan Doyle for the Defense, aligned with her resignation from the Times.
“In the end, then — when that far-off day truly does come for me — I hope my epitaph will read thus:
‘She was a decent stylist. She didn’t get too many things wrong. She didn’t tick too many people off. At times she wrote obits with tears in her eyes, but far more often she wrote them from joy. It was the joy that sprang from the extraordinary privilege of tracing the arc — in sweet-smelling newsprint, damp with ink — of lives well lived.
‘And she changed 50,000 commas into semicolons.'”