Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ask Maureen. She knows.

Maureen O'Donnell, obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, shared the secret to creating a memorable obit to NPR this week.

"I think it's the little details that make history come alive. You know, this may be the man or woman who lives down the street, but they liberated a concentration camp, or they invented the beehive hairdo or they created the Playboy bunny logo in 30 minutes," she said.

Listen to the full interview here:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Introducing The Afterneath

Did you know there's an entire album of music that's inspired by obituaries?

Jascha Hoffman, a Brooklyn-based journalist and singer, is the talent behind "The Atferneath: Songs from Obituaries." Inspired by the subjects of the obits he penned for The New York Times, the album is filled with tracks about a euthanasia-boosting doctor, a reluctant nuclear scientist, a genocide survivor, a public servant who turned to public suicide, a boy dreaming of flying a model airplanes across the ocean, a love-struck cowboy and someone who experienced a late-career ping-pong comeback.

"...To my surprise, the strongest character on this album has turned out to be the 20th century," Hoffman wrote on his website. "From 1940s wartime hobbies, through the gender wars of the 1970s and tabloid kidnap and murder of the 80s -- you could say the album is a sort of technicolor obituary for an American era, one that is slowly fading."

Click here to preview a few tunes or buy the album on iTunes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The truth behind obituary writing

Founding SPOW member Kay Powell, the doyenne of the death beat and a woman who has made a "career of saying goodbye," had a lovely chat with Virginia Prescott of "Two Way Street" on Georgia Public Broadcasting last week.

Powell discussed a variety of obits and explained her purpose when writing one: "I wanted to bring the person back to life. I want to learn something about them that I didn't know, the general public probably didn't know, even members of the family didn't know. I wanted to be truthful."

Click here to hear the entire interview.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Which Obit Should Kids Read?

Of all the obituaries you've read - or written - what's one you'd pick for kids to read?

I'm a middle school teacher and an obituary enthusiast. I use obituaries in the classroom to introduce students to people who lived inspiring lives, worthy of emulation.*

We've read about the foster mother to ninety-eight children, the first woman to climb the highest mountain on each continent, and the man who invented the study of flags. (Over fifty obits so far - see them all at I'm especially interested in obits that may have received insufficient notice.

I'd be grateful if you shared your recommendation(s) in the comment section below.

Many thanks - and thank you for the work you do!

-Peter Sipe

*For more on obituaries' instructional merit, see my Boston Herald op-ed "Obituaries Teach Life's Lessons."

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The intriguing language of obits

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers has long had an international presence. While most of our members live and work in the U.S., many others hail from Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

One SPOW member, Jonathan Semmler, a professor of Portuguese and literature in Brazil, recently published the article, "The Discursive Building of the Brazilian Obituary in the Folha de S. Paulo Newspaper" in the Brazilian scientific journal Forum Linguistico.

Semmler analyzed 2,284 obituaries that appeared in the newspaper between 2007 and 2012 for stylistic, thematic and compositional characteristics. After much study, he described the Brazilian obituary "as an informative and utilitarian journalism genre that uses New Journalism as a stylistic resource in order to soften the mourning of someone’s death by celebrating the person’s life."

Click here (PDF) to read his full paper.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

When death notices speak ill of the dead

Richard Chin of the Star Tribune tackled the topic of families purchasing death notices that air dirty laundry and settle scores in newsprint.

"Obituaries say much more than who died and where to send flowers," he wrote. "They hold a mirror up to the living, revealing what we think constitutes a well-lived life. They also present a cautionary tale of what not to do if you want to avoid a postmortem write-up that has you spinning in the grave."

Click here to read his story.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Some of the best obits are about people who should've been known

Harrison Smith, one of the top obituary writers in the U.S. and a SPOW member, appeared on the Remembering the Passed podcast this week to discuss his obit of Ted Dabney.

Dabney, who died on May 26 at the age of 81, was a largely self-taught electrical engineer and the co-founder of Atari, Inc. He developed the basics of video circuitry principles that were used for Pong, one of the first and most successful arcade games, but until about a decade ago, Dabney's achievements in the world of video gaming were largely overlooked.

Click here to read Smith's wonderful obituary of Dabney, then check out the discussion of his life below: