The Valdosta Daily Times
Kay Powell has been referred to as the “Doyenne of the Death Beat,” but the trick of her job as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s obituary editor wasn’t writing about deaths. It was writing about lifetimes.
Next week, Powell will return to her South Georgia roots to share how to write a family obituary. The event is sponsored by the Soul Sisters of Quitman United Methodist Church, a group that opens the church to the community for non-religious events.
Powell plans to share how family members can break the mold of the standard funeral home and newspaper obituary for a more personal telling of the departed’s life.
“There’s a growing change in the desire to write family obituaries,” Powell says. “I want people to understand they can get more personal with a family obituary.”
Powell knows how to get personal with an obituary. She worked as the AJC’s obituary editor for 13 years until her retirement in 2009. During that time, she was featured on “CBS Sunday Morning,” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” as well as mentions in The New Yorker and USA Today.
While families often want an obituary to read like a resume listing the loved one’s achievements, Powell’s daily AJC obituary stories searched for something deeper.
“As a newspaper features obituary writer, I took a different approach,” Powell says. “... I wrote a personality profile but the person being profiled was dead. The purpose wasn’t to write a resume but to give a sense of the person’s life.”
Powell’s journalism career started in Valdosta. She worked as the Valdosta High School newspaper editor and the Valdosta State newspaper editor.
During this time, whenever The Valdosta Daily Times’ regular teen-page writer was away, Kay filled those duties. As a student, Kay worked one summer for The Times.
Graduating from Valdosta State with an English degree in the 1960s, Kay wondered what she would do. Looking back, Powell says there weren’t many jobs for women during that era. Powell recalls playing bridge one afternoon when The Times editor Tenney Griffin visited her. He offered her a job.
From duties as a state news editor and a hard-news reporter, working at The Valdosta Daily Times, then other newspapers, Powell describes her early journalism years as “a gypsy-like career.” In Atlanta, she landed as the Journal’s editor of the Letters to the Editor. As the Journal and Constitution combined newsrooms, Powell became editor of Letters to the Editor for the AJC.
The AJC wanted to connect with readers through its obituaries. These obituary features would not be the expected stories on the deaths of the city’s prominent people, but rather regular people who lived fascinating lives. Working with the paper’s letter writers, Powell had already nurtured many relationships with readers. The editor tapped Powell to become the AJC’s obituary editor.
Each morning, Powell and her small writing staff delved into about 80 death notices that had arrived overnight. From these lists, they chose one or two people for obituary stories.
“I had a background in hard news,” Powell says. “My news instinct would usually tell me there’s something more here. ... If I’m curious to know more about a person, I’ll bet readers would be, too. God was my assignment editor.”
From 10 a.m. to the 5 p.m. deadline each day, Powell worked on her obituary stories. She told the story of a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and the passing of the King of the Gypsies. She told the story of a man who made an amazing pound cake and included the recipe.
Possibly, her best-known obituary was the one for Pluto several years ago when it lost its planet status. The AJC editors wanted to do something different regarding Pluto’s planet demotion. They asked Powell to write the story of Pluto’s death. She followed her usual obituary story format: A descriptive opening that gives flavor to the subject; the general information regarding how the subject passed, survivors, etc.; then more narrative detail on the subject’s life. The Pluto story ran on the AJC’s front page. Powell recently discovered her Pluto story had been published and posted by newspapers around the world.
Writing obituaries gave Powell uncommon access. Calling strangers at the time of death takes a certain nerve, but what may surprise many people is how willing families and friends are to speak of their loved ones.
“Many a family said it was such an important part of the grieving process,” Powell says of the AJC calls for an obituary story. Amidst the funeral arrangements and mourning, these families would receive a phone call from the gracious, Southern-voiced Powell. “They would tell us it was nice to spend some time talking about mama’s life.”
For other obituary stories, Ted Turner called from a plane. Or a person would call her back from an outdoor café in Paris. Almost everyone returned Kay Powell’s calls for a comment on an obituary.
“I had more unlisted numbers and personal cell phone numbers in my Rolodex than any other reporter because when they wouldn’t talk to another reporter, they would call about an obituary,” Powell says.
Not always. She faced reluctance from the family of the KKK grand wizard; it took the entire day but she got them to talk on the record. For another death, she recalls calling a man who said, “He wouldn’t talk because you wouldn’t print what I would have to say about him.”
Yet, Powell has also been in the position of having to be part of the family for an obituary story. For her Quitman talk, she can speak from experience.
She does not like writing about people close to her, but her siblings convinced her to write the obituary for their mother. In writing her mother’s obituary, Powell consulted repeatedly with her family. Google “Kay Powell” on the Internet and you discover that her mother’s obituary contains one of Powell’s most cited lines: “In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company.”
A couple of family members did not want to include the toothbrush line in the final obituary. Powell insisted it stay because it is a detail that shares how her mother loved people’s company and how much people enjoyed her mother’s company as well.
It is a detail that shares so much about a person’s life. It is the type of detail that reveals the uncommon talent of Kay Powell’s career.