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It’s a time-honored ritual in Haines. When someone dies, local author Heather Lende meets with family and friends to write about the life of the deceased — no matter how ordinary she or he was.
Haines obituary writer’s experiences being produced as a TV show 082317 AE 1 John Stang, For the Capital City Weekly It’s a time-honored ritual in Haines. When someone dies, local author Heather Lende meets with family and friends to write about the life of the deceased — no matter how ordinary she or he was.

Heather Lende. Photo by John Stang.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Story last updated at 8/22/2017 - 2:45 pm

Haines obituary writer’s experiences being produced as a TV show

It’s a time-honored ritual in Haines. When someone dies, local author Heather Lende meets with family and friends to write about the life of the deceased — no matter how ordinary she or he was.

For most newspapers, an obituary is a rigidly formatted and dry resume of a person’s life. In the Chilkat Valley News, every death is recorded with a personalized feature story full of quirks and quotes. Lende, 58, has written most of them.

And now, a producer is looking into creating a television series about a fictional small-town Alaska newspaper obit-features writer with each episode focusing on her quest to learn about the life of a recently-deceased resident. Lende has signed a contract as an executive producer of the unnamed series with the London-based corporation FreemantleMedia.

“For (the protagonist), each assignment begins a new investigation. Like a detective, she uncovers everything from past glory to family secrets, from intimate community connections to love, loss, and regret. Each journey not only informs how (she) navigates her own life – she is married with five children and six grandchildren – but also encourages us to understand our own,” said a statement from FreemantleMedia, a worldwide television production and distribution company. FreemantleMedia is currently involved in the production or distribution of “Family Feud,” “The Match Game,” “To Tell the Truth” and “The Price Is Right” as well as a new science fiction show called “American Gods.”

“I’m really excited. But I’ll believe it when I see it,” said the mother of five and grandmother of six.

A Long Island native, she studied history and met her husband Chip at Vermont’s Middlebury College. They moved to Haines in 1984 where he now owns a lumberyard. She later earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Lende ended up with a show on family and community life at the local public radio station KHNS and a column in the Alaska Dispatch News. Plus she wrote “Duly Noted,” a column in the weekly Chilkat Valley News on who is vacationing where, who is visiting whom, whose kid did what at College and other small-town tidbits.

Meanwhile, for decades, the Chilkat Valley News has covered each death in the community as a full-fledged news story. In 1997, a dying old lady did not like the reporter who usually wrote the death stories and asked Lende to write her obit instead.

“She told me the story of her life, the things she thought were important,” Lende said.

Lende has been writing the borough’s obits ever since.

Haines is a borough without a funeral home. Word of a death spreads through the grapevine in the community of roughly 2,500 until it reaches the ears of Lende or the paper’s newsroom. Lende frequently starts with friends or outer relatives and works her way to the immediate family. But the family of deceased frequently calls Lende herself because she’s part of the borough’s ritual of death and moving on. She will drop everything and begin working on the story.

Even after 20 years, Lende said: “It is still something that is very difficult to do. I still have to brace myself to talk to them.”

To Lende, a person’s obit should be about their lives, what they enjoyed, what made them tick — not just a series of dates. It’s cathartic for the family and friends.

“This helps them to do something they don’t want to do, but they really want to do. I’m part of the coping process of death and grief and caring. Obituaries are about somebody’s life. It’s not about their death,” Lende said.

But the obit writing does take its emotional toll, especially when she writes about the lives and deaths of friends and children of friends.

“It gets harder on my heart as I get older,’ she said.

What happens when the deceased really was an unpleasant person? Then the obituary gets fairly bare bones with dates and not much else, she said.

Meanwhile, Lende began writing books of stories about Alaska small-town life. This included “If You Lived here, I’d Know Your Name” in 2005, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles” in 2011, and “Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From A Small-Town Obituary Writer” in 2015. An editor at “Women’s Day” magazine read “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs,” and loved it enough to give Lende a column in the magazine.

In late July FreemantleMedia announced that it is working on producing a scripted television series out of Lende’s obit writing career. Two top FreemantleMedia officals — Sarah Doole, director of global drama and Christian Vesper, a creative director for global drama, had read and liked “Find The Good.”

“‘Find The Good’ offers an honest, clear-eyed, optimistic worldview that today’s audiences are yearning for. Heather’s books are packed with authentic characters living real lives in this gorgeous yet sometimes harsh environment. Her writing reinforces our need for deep human connection and we’re looking forward to adapting the stories into a drama that the whole family can enjoy. Life. Death. Humanity. Heather’s stories have all of the elements of a successful, feel-good, multi-generational and multi-cultural drama with universal appeal,” Vesper said.

The series has just begun the development phase with no guarantee that a network will pick it up.

Although based in Lende’s books and experiences, the series will not use the name of Haines or of real people in Haines. The producers agreed to Lende’s request that the town and names be fictionalized. Also, the stories might be changed for dramatic purposes. Another unknown is the character to be based on Lende. Will fictional Lende be 25 years old or 55 or somewhere in-between? The producers have not settled on that yet.

Roughly a half a dozen actresses are being considered for the character, but Lende is contractually obligated not to talk about the names or which is her favorite.

Some of her stories are supposed to become episodes on the show. But Lende does not know which ones. In fact, she does not have any personal favorites that she wants to push for the show.

In fact, Lende wants to see how her work is interpreted by others. “I want to see how different writers and actors have a take on this.”

 

John Stang is a longtime Pacific Northwest reporter who now freelances. He is a jack-of-all-trades with expertise in Hanford nuclear reservation, state government, the environment, science, crime and other subjects.