Prison Obits | Writing about their own deaths
by Chris Megerian
In the wrong writer’s hands, an obituary can be a dull collection of biographical facts, the type of article that journalism professor William Drummond calls the “lowest common denominator” of newspaper writing.
But on this day, he hoped for something more profound from his students, even if his classroom wasn’t filled with the high-achievers he was accustomed to teaching at UC Berkeley. Drummond was across the bay in San Quentin State Prison, where he was introducing inmates to the basics of covering the news.
The obituary assignment came with a twist. Instead of writing about a pop star’s overdose or a political leader’s assassination, Drummond told his incarcerated students they would be writing about a different death: their own.
They would choose how they would die, and they would sum up their own lives however they wanted.
“I did it as a way to find out how these guys had reconciled their crimes,” Drummond said. “Were they able to take a critical look at what got them in trouble?”
The inmates, he recalled, were uncomfortable. These were people who were best known for their worst decisions — stabbing a man to death, gunning down a bystander, robbing banks.
Now Drummond wanted to know: “What is your real value?”
The resulting obituaries were reflective, outlandish, candid, evasive, aspirational. Above all, they showed how people who have wronged society would like to be remembered.
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