Krishna Andavolu is the managing editor of Obit (www.obit-mag.com), an online magazine intended for those interested in obituaries, epitaphs, elegies, postludes, retrospectives, grave rubbings, widow’s weeds, and other such memorabilia of expiration. Part eulogistic clearinghouse, part cultural review, Obit purports to examine life through the prism of death. Founded in 2007 by a wealthy New Jersey architect who sensed an exploitable niche after seeing a middle-aged woman distraught over the death of Captain Kangaroo, the site is a locus for enlightened morbidity.
Andavolu is a slender, bearded man with an erect bearing and a confident demeanor. His temperament seems to match the site’s decidedly serene aesthtetic. In his biographical photo on the site, he stares regally into the camera, as if he were posing for a portrait. He is twenty-six.
He has been at Obit since its inception, joining after a brief stint at a photography magazine called Daylight. He grew up in Princeton, N.J., the son of two doctors. “They both spent their careers trying to keep people alive, so they think its odd that I’m spending mine writing about people who die,” he says. When he tells strangers about his job, he is often greeted with bad jokes, like “You must have a lot of deadlines,” or “Who’s your editor—God?” But the jokes lead to conversation, and the conversation often leads to appreciation. “Oh,” people say. “This is a perfect moment for a magazine like that.”
Andavolu is the site’s only full-time editorial staffer. (Avery Rome, an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the site’s editor-in-chief.) He works out of his apartment in Brooklyn, a second-floor walkup across the street from the Williamsburg Bridge, which he shares with two female roommates. The apartment is large and filled with light; there is a wooden cross on the wall and a shillelagh over the door and a stack of vinyl records propped under the television, fronted by Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Up at 6:30, he spends his days writing, editing, and handling various managerial tasks—fact-checking (are “do-it-yourself funerals” actually a real trend?), fielding queries (he gets a lot of inside-baseball pitches on the obituary business), researching (scouting publishers’ catalogs for any upcoming memoirs about grief), and so on. He tries to keep up with notable deaths and death-related news; to do so, he has Google Alerts set for the names of decrepit celebrities, as well as for such likely terms as “death,” “burial,” “funeral,” and others.
While obituaries are still the site’s specialty—the home page’s right-hand column features a news feed listing notable people who have died that day—Andavolu also likes to address various cultural issues that fall under the site’s purview. A recent article, for example, criticized actress Farrah Fawcett for her false bravado in a recent television special addressing her bout with deadly anal cancer:
Wanting to live is not the issue. Rather, the airing of her illness obscures a deeper discussion of human mortality. You can fight against a disease, as Fawcett does, and you can live with an illness. This show misses the opportunity to portray or discuss the latter. You’d think a struggle would make better television, but in the case of “Farrah’s Story,” her determination feels cloying.
He has also introduced a number of recurring features. “Ask Judy” is a weekly advice column for the terminally ill and their loved ones, written by the proprietor of a Web site called The Checkout Line. The popular “Died on the Same Day” feature is a resource for those interested in learning about historically notable individuals who happened to share a date of death. “Shakespeare and Cervantes both died on the same day,” he notes with wonder. “Unbelievable. Like, foundational humans.”
He admires the death coverage in The Economist and the work of former Daily Telegraph obituarist Andrew McKie, a dapper man who cuts a distinctive figure at the annual obituary conventions held in locations like Alfred, N.Y. and Las Vegas, New Mexico.* Andavolu has attended two of these, hobnobbing with obituary writers from around the globe. “They’re a tight-knit group,” he confides.
He has come to share some of their occupational hazards. “It’s hard to say whether I’m just more attuned to this now, but I see death and dying coming more and more to the forefront of the mainstream media,” he says. “Swine flu, the Air Force One scare…. Just two recent examples of times where people thought that mass death was imminent.”
But personally, he is less interested in death so much as transitions—“foundational transitions,” he says, often. He is happiest when using the obituary conceit as a way to address cultural changes. He has written about the death of the American muscle car, the purchasing habits of people who are actively aware of their own mortality, the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, the end of the television program ER, and other, similiarly funereal topics. “I’m a real generalist right now,” he admits.
Eventually, he hopes to spend more time reporting on culture and the arts. For now, though, he is more than happy where he is. Although he was initially unsure whether Obit would find an audience, he is confident that it is a magazine on the move. “This place has the ability to become something very large,” he says. “I really think it’s something that, over the next few years, has a future.”
Correction: The original version of this piece stated that the obituary conventions attended by Andavolu were sponsored by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. They were actually sponsored by the International Association of Obituarists. CJR regrets the error.Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.