High-pressure assignment: Covering a funeral

One weird thing that journalists do is attend the funerals of complete strangers. Then, having listened to the eulogies and talked to loved ones, we do our best to write a story that encapsulates the person’s life, even though we never met or talked to that person when they were alive.

It’s a tall order, one that I think most journalists are terrified they’ll screw up royally.

We take these assignments very seriously — after all, the funeral story may very well be the last thing published about the person who died.

I’ve only had to write these types of stories a few times in my journalism career. This weekend was one of those times.

My editors sent me to a “celebration of life” service for Joe Byrd, a local bass player who had some renown in the world of jazz music. I drew the assignment because I was the on-duty weekend reporter.

Thankfully, one of my colleagues wrote a pretty in-depth piece about Mr. Byrd a few days after he died earlier this month. So I was familiar with his back story and wasn’t starting from scratch.

Still, I re-read that story and others. I clicked through Mr. Byrd’s website and watched a video interview on YouTube that apparently was filmed just a few weeks before he died.

I think I did a pretty good job with the story. As I listened to the speeches, a clear theme emerged about the supporting but vital role of Mr. Byrd as a bass player in a band as well as in life. The theme was started by the first eulogist, radio personality Andy Bienstock, and continued by others.

But still, I worried that I didn’t quote all of the speakers, that I didn’t say enough about the extensive musical tributes to Mr. Byrd. (There was about an hour of speeches and an hour-and-a-half of music.)

Maybe if I was a fan of jazz music, I could have done better, I thought. (Sorry, jazz-lovers, there’s only a narrow range of jazz that I like. I’m much more of a blues gal, thanks to my guitar-playing husband.)

The assignment was also a little odd because — strangely enough — I wrote the very first report we had about the car crash that led to Mr. Byrd’s death.

Mr. Byrd’s car was struck by another vehicle on busy Route 2 in Edgewater shortly before rush hour on a weekday. It caused major traffic problems. Our police/fire/emergency reporter wasn’t in the newsroom, so I volunteered to get the basic details so we could post a news item on our website. Only later did we learn that Mr. Byrd was involved and died.

So it was just by sheer chance that I wrote about the wreck and only due to scheduling issues that I wound up covering Mr. Byrd’s service. Through luck, it all came full circle.

That’s kind of why this line of work is amazing — you never know quite what’s going to happen, who you meet, what stories you’ll tell.

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