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Experience July/August 2023

The Dead Beat

Norm Tabler


  • Writing alumni magazine memorials for college classmates can provide a sense of contribution to your class and a connection with classmates and it can appease your love for writing and the need for productivity in retirement.
The Dead Beat
Filip Krstic via Getty Images

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I cover the dead beat for my college class. I’ve done it for a quarter century. When a classmate dies, it’s my job to write the obituary that will appear in our alumni magazine.

A little background: I graduated from Princeton in 1966. The institution didn’t admit women until 1969, so, of course, all my classmates were male. They still are, except one who became a woman after graduation.

Virtually all of us were born in 1944. That makes us 79 this year. You don’t need an actuary to know the deaths are rising in number and frequency and will continue to do so until all of us are gone.

A few comments about terminology: The Princeton Alumni Weekly is an alumni magazine published about once a month. That’s more frequent than any other college alumni magazine but still well short of weekly.

Why is it called Weekly if it comes out monthly? Because it was originally a weekly and continued to be a weekly for decades. But mostly it’s called Weekly because it always has been called Weekly, and change comes slowly, if at all, at Princeton. Witness the 223 years it took to admit women.

More on terminology: In the Weekly, obituaries aren’t called obituaries. They’re called memorials. That makes my official title class memorialist rather than the class obituarist.

The rumor is false

Why do I do it? There are several reasons.

First, it lets me feel as though I’m contributing something to the class.

Second, it allows—even requires—me to keep in touch with the class leadership and classmates.

Third, it enables me to do what I most enjoyed about the practice of law before retiring: writing.

Fourth, it gives me something productive to do when I don suit and tie each weekday morning and visit the small office the firm provides me as a retired partner.

There’s no truth to the rumor that I write the obituaries to remind my classmates that I always have the last word.

Sad news spreads

How does memorial writing work? It usually starts with an email from one classmate letting me know that another has died. (I invariably get a formal notice from the university’s alumni records department, but it almost always comes well after I’ve already known from some other source.)

I then conduct a search online for a newspaper obituary, and I almost always find one. That obituary, together with information from our freshman and senior face books and every-fifth-year reunion books, generally gives me about 75 percent of the information I need. The other 25 percent comes from classmates, especially college roommates or clubmates of the deceased.

The term clubmates requires a word of explanation. Most juniors and seniors at Princeton belong to eating clubs, where they eat their meals and generally center their social lives. If you’re thinking that eating clubs sound suspiciously like co-ed fraternities or sororities, you’re right.

Why, then, are they called eating clubs? Because they always have been.

Where things get tricky

I can’t say that I get a lot of questions about my memorial writing. But among them, the two most common concern suicide and scandal. As for suicide, I avoid mentioning it unless I can be certain it was suicide and I have no reason to believe the family will object.

Scandal is trickier, partly because the nature and degree of scandals are so variable. Generally, I avoid any mention of it unless it’s clearly related to the death or essential to understanding the life of the classmate.

Curiously, technological developments have made my work both easier and harder. Easier because the internet makes searching so fast and simple and because email is lightning fast compared to traditional postal service.

But harder because, even if I have the deceased’s email address and mobile phone number, those are usually of no use in contacting a surviving wife or partner. Why? Because a survivor has rarely shared a mobile phone number or email address with the deceased’s classmate.

Why don’t I simply use old-fashioned postal mail? First, by contemporary standards, postal mail is simply too slow. That’s a major consideration when publication delays are measured in months. What’s more, I have no way of knowing whether the survivor is putting off a response until a later date or has no plans to respond.

(I’ve also discovered that a widow receiving an envelope bearing the return address of a strange law firm may be inclined to discard rather than open it.)

This hurdle doesn’t mean that I can’t contact the survivor. It means that making contact is a two- or three-step process involving finding and communicating with someone who may have the contact information I’m looking for, in the hope that person will lead me to the survivor.

I’ve already discussed two questions I often get. There’s a third: When the time comes, who will write my memorial?