Saturday, December 30, 2006

My New Year's resolution for 2007

I, Alana Baranick, keeper of this blog, do resolve to keep the "obituary forum" blog more current by posting new items more often and by bugging my fellow grimsters to do the same.

But before I start trying to hold true to that resolution, I plan to post a succession of year-end items that I've been meaning to post over the last month or more. And I invite my obit-writing and obit-loving friends to do the same.

Have a wonderful, prosperous and enjoyable 2007.

They come in 3s.

The proverbial "they" say that deaths come in threes.

That's probably because "they" are aware of two newsmakers, two colleagues, two relatives or any two people, whom they have known or heard about, who may or may not be connected to them in some way, who have died on the same day or within a short time of one another.

Then they wait for the third shoe to drop, which is peculiar when you think about it, since most of us wear only two shoes at a time.

They're reading the obit pages. They're watching the cable news crawls more closely. They get up early to watch morning television shows in case someone famous died overnight. Surely they'll find a third decedent to complete the hat trick.

On Christmas, James Brown, internationally recognized as the Godfather of Soul, died. His music is, as they say, is part of the soundtrack of our lives. He influenced and will continue to influence generations of musicians and genres of music that go way beyond R&B, funk and rock 'n' roll.

Some of his less-than-steller offstage behavior landed him in court and/or jail, but that didn't diminish our affection for him. After listening to a James Brown song or seeing him perform, we could always say, "I feel good!"

His farewell funeral tour, which included stops at memorial musical-, preaching- and love-fests at the Apollo Theater in New York City, a small church in North Augusta, N.C., and James Brown Arena in Augusta, Ga., was barely announced when along comes Ford.

Gerald Ford, who had a short stint as president of the United States, died Tuesday, Dec. 26.

They're calling Ford "the accidental president." Appointed, never elected to national office. He landed in the White House on the support of what in the big picture amounted to only a handful of Michigan voters and by virtue of, well, his virtue.

His reputation as a good guy, an honest man and agreeable Congressman tipped the scale in the decision of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, in selecting him to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president. And that, of course, automatically made him president when Nixon resigned as president.

Like Brown, Ford's funerary events are taking place at several venues: in Palm Desert, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unlike Brown with his offstage behavior and jail time, Ford upset a lot of people by pardoning Nixon for crimes he may have committed in office. Ford himself later got a pardon of sorts for granting the Nixon pardon in the form of a Profiles in Courage award from the Kennedy clan.

We'd been waiting for the death of the 93-year-old ex-president, whose frequent hospital visits in recent years had newspaper editors ready to stop the presses. But we were stunned when the 73-year-old hardest-working man in show business died.

As happens after just about every pair of notable deaths, I speculated with friends and family on "Who will be the third?"

Although we could mention elderly and/or ailing newsmakers from the United States and, oh, I don't know, maybe Cuba, in our private musings about "The Third," we talked about No. 3 being someone different from Ford and Brown. Maybe someone on a lesser plane of fame, significance. Maybe female. Younger than those we might expect. Possibly one of those tabloid celebrities, whose contributions to the world, if any, will quickly be forgotten.

Boy! Were we wrong! Out there in plain sight, a death sentence (you'll excuse the expression) hanging over his head. I never would have thought that Saddam Hussein would seemingly come out of nowhere to catapult to No. 3 on death charts. But he did. Dec. 29. Executed. Hanged. For crimes against humanity.

As eulogies, memorial events and our mourning for Gerald Ford and James Brown continue, reporters and pundits will remind us of the life that Saddam Hussein lived and the countless lives he ruined.

That's a good thing - reminding us. I'm glad that disturbing images of torture and murder committed under SH's regime in Iraq are shown on TV while assorted voices discuss his life and the significance of his death.

We should not forget. As "they" also say: Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Journalism of Death

The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento, Calif., has decided to give obituaries a higher priority.

According to the paper's public editor Armando Acuña, The Bee is currently publishing a local news obit nearly every day. Recent features include a homeless man, a flood control expert, a pilot who ferried governors around the state and an organist.

These well-written obits are not only informative, they're also popular with readers. They're "consistently among the highest read items on the paper's Web site," Acuña said.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Adam B. and his weekly radio gig

Every Sunday at around 11:40 a.m., Adam Bernstein, deputy obituaries editor for The Washington Post, gets 10 minutes of radio airtime to talk about the lives of people who died during the previous week.

He gets his sixth-of-an-hour on Bob Levey's Sunday morning show, which is accessible via the Internet at Washington Post Radio.

This morning, Adam talked with Bob about Peter Boyle ("Young Frankenstein" and "Everybody Loves Raymond") and Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame).

Adam mentioned some things about these men that didn't make it into the published obits.

It was short, but sweet. Tune in next time.

Nigel Starck's "Life After Death"

Just in time for Insert-appropriate-winter-holiday-here, I received a copy of "Life After Death" by Nigel Starck, Australia's and possibly the world's greatest authority on obituaries in English-language newspapers.

His book was my gift to myself.

I thought I could read the entire book in a couple of days and post a complete report for you here. But such is not the case. Like a ravenous guest at a buffet dinner, I devoured samples from each chapter much faster than my brain could digest the text.

I'll have to read it again more slowly and thoroughly, but that won't stop me from giving a short report now.

In his book, Nigel writes about the history and development of obits from 1622 to modern times. He talks about various styles of obits, how lives and deaths are portrayed in print and such issues as ethics and judgement. He includes many of his all-time favorite obits.

Much of the information is familiar to those of us who have attended Carolyn Gilbert's Great Obituary Writers Conferences and to readers and contributors to this Obituary Forum blog.

We've heard Nigel give presentations on the subject during the years in which he traveled throughout the United States, United Kingdom and, of course, Australia conducting research for his doctoral thesis on obituary and newspaper practice.

He cites many of us, the obits we've written, books and other articles we've penned, remarks we've made at conference sessions and in casual conversation. Tom Hobbs, our favorite university librarian, gets a special nod for his contributions as a researcher.

The tone of "Life After Death" reflects the personality of its author. Scholarly, charming, amusing and fun.

To order "Life After Death," click the "Life on the Death Beat" image at the top of the sidebar on the right. It will take you to a page with links to Nigel's and several other obit-related books.

Newer version of the obituary forum blog

Attention, fellow obit bloggers.

Our blogger hosts have done some technical stuff that I don't completely understand yet. It has something to do with switching to Blogger in beta. You can go to blogger help to read about this new development. I welcome your explanations - in layman's terms - of what this all means.

Apparently, as the administrator of this team blog, I will be required at some point to switch to the newer version. When I do that, you may not be able to post items immediately. You may have to go through the registration process all over again.

If this happens, please tell me about it, so we can fix things.

I hope to understand this stuff before the end of 2006 and make the switch for 2007.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Monday, November 27, 2006

State of not-necessarily-holy matrimony

I recently wrote a feature obituary in which I included the fact that, when the man I was writing about died, he and his wife were in the process of legally ending their marriage.

I got the sum total of two complaints for saying this. One was from the wife. The other from an anonymous caller, who also called our managing editor.

When I write what I would call a standard obituary, I include a list of surviving relatives. No matter what the relationship between the deceased and the spouse was, the spouse would be listed as the spouse, as long as they were still married. And an ex-spouse would not be listed because we don't include ex-spouses, no matter how close the two were.

I did an obit a few years ago for a man, who had been living in an apartment with his live-in girlfriend for something like 25 years, while his wife lived in the house in which they had raised their kids. These two would never legally divorce. I think it had something to do with their religion. I listed his wife as the surviving spouse. I did not list or even mention the girlfriend.

I've done obits for people who had divorces in the works at the time that one of them died. Again, I listed the surviving spouse. They weren't exed yet.

The recent feature obit in which I mentioned the divorce-in-the-works was "A Life Story," which takes up half a page, has a 20-inch story, a small biobox with mug and three other pictures, showing the story subject at different times of life and engaged in different activities.

I don't often use up precious space to list all of the person's surviving relatives. If the deceased had five kids, for example, I would call her "the mother of five" rather than name all the kids. (Once in a while, circumstances dictate that I name them. But I won't get into that here.)

Also, when we run a picture of the deceased with all the kids, I give their names in the caption.

One of the pictures for the man with the pending divorce showed him and his wife on their wedding day. (I'm getting tired of running wedding pictures with these features, but this was an exceptionally good photo.)

So in the caption, I wrote that they were married on such-and-such a date. And that at the time of his death, they were separated and in the process of legally ending their 25-year marriage. That statement was accurate.

The wife never mentioned to me that they were getting divorced. I found out about that, when I checked the online county court docket to see whether he was involved in any pending court cases or had a criminal record.

Friends and family confirmed what I read in the court account - that if he had lived another two weeks, their marriage would have been over. But I really should have called the wife to address this. Or at least alerted her to the fact that I was going to mention it.

When she complained about it after the story ran, she said that, if I had called her, she would have told me that they had agreed to reconcile. I would have no way to know whether that was true. I probably would have put it in quotes.

In retrospect, I should have told my editor that we should not include the wedding photo. I mentioned the wife in the story, saying that this fellow met his wife when they both worked at the same place. That might have been sufficient.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Censoring obits for political content

When a 93-year-old Bush-bashing woman penned her obit in advance, she included some political comments that kept the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union from printing the piece for three days. And it was a paid obit!

Protests from members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society, who apparently knew the woman, prompted the paper to publish a slightly altered version (with the consent of her daughter) and do a story about the incident.

In the story, which ran Nov. 3, 2006, reporter Paul Grondahl shared the portion of Helen Sharpe's auto-obituary that "ran afoul" of his paper's guidelines:

She left strict instructions that there be no schmaltzy sentimentality of mourning, urging that in lieu of expressions of grief people should send urgent messages to their legislators to force U.S. signing of the Kyoto Protocol, then vote in such a way as to send Bush a strong message of disgust with his policies and politics.

At first, newspaper ad reps tried to get Sharpe's daughter to "tone down the political rhetoric," but the daughter declined. She was prepared to take out a half-page display ad (which apparently would not have gone through such scrutiny) with a $7,100 pricetag, in order to publish her mom's own words.

According to Grondahl's article, the daughter said: "It's not about the money. It's about the principle."

In the end, it was amended to say that Sharpe hoped that people who wish to remember her continue to support the Kyoto Protocol and oppose the Bush Administration.

Grondahl added some nice touches to his story. He pointed out that Sharpe, a self-described born-again atheist, frequently wrote letters to the editor advocating euthanasia for humans, as well as respect for atheists and agnostics. She decided she was ready to die and took prearranged steps to end her life on Monday.

It was unclear what prearranged steps Sharpe took.

Grondahl wrote: In her final hours, Helen Sharpe struggled to rise from her sickbed to make her daughter jelly tarts, "So you'll have sweetness in your mouth, instead of bitterness."

He described a planned celebration of her life and ended his piece with her last words:

She left instructions for that event, as well: a case of good wine and a selection of gourmet cheeses. A pianist will play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Helen Sharpe's final words to her daughter were these: "We're so lucky, aren't we?"

Well done, Paul Grondahl!

I have to give credit to Pam Vetter for forwarding this story that's been circulating among funeral celebrants.

And I must confess that I too engaged in a form of censorship regarding this. I waited to post this item until after the Nov. 7 elections were over. I know, I know. Shame on me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Censors for on-line obituary guest books

If you haven't read it -- fascinating New York Times story about people who vet the online obituary guest book before the posts are made public.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Grande & Secret Order of Obituary Cocktail

One of our editors was in New Orleans and photographed a banner for the Grande & Secret Order of Obituary Cocktail. Searching for more information on the Grande & Secret Order of Obituary Cocktail, I found two recipes on the internet.
Atlanta has two bar/restaurants dear to our profession, one is named Graveyard and the other is Six Feet Under, across from the historic Oakland Cemetery. Check them out next time you're in Atlanta and order the Obituary Cocktail. If the bartender doesn't know how to make it, here are the two recipes:

Adapted from Obituary Cocktail: The Great Saloons of New Orleans, by Kerri McCaffety.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, America invented the ultimate cocktail the martini. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop made a special version with an added splash of absinthe and called it the Obituary Cocktail.

• 4 jiggers dry gin
• 1/2 jigger dry vermouth
• 1/2 jigger Pernod (a legal absinthe substitute)

Chill in a shaker and strain.

Here's another version:

Obituary Cocktail

• 2 ounces gin
• 1/4 ounce dry vermouth
• 1/4 ounce pastis

Stir with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Bottoms up.
Kay Powell
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Obituaries Editor

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Twilight Zone moment

Wally Guenther, my partner-in-grim at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote an obituary that appeared in today's (Oct. 26, 2006) paper for Nikki Kukwa, a remarkable 22-year-old Kent State University aviation student who died of leukemia.

Even the time of her death was remarkable. And somewhat eerie.

Wally writes: "Her favorite time of the day was 11:11 a.m.," an uncle, Rick Kukwa, of Philadelphia, said. "We don't know why, but when she saw the time on the clock she would always say, 'Make a wish.' "

Nikki Kukwa died at 11:11 a.m. Monday, her family said.

Please cue the "Twilight Zone" theme.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hey Jim - lighten up!

Seriously, though, here's our own Jim Sheeler bringing the war home in all its glory to the heartland. You go Jim!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Studdly Ledes

You'd never know what a charming fellow Rep. Gary Studds was from the ledes of his obits in the NYTimes and WaPo. Both proclaim him as the "first openly gay" member of Congress - like he was of beacon in the darkness. The fact is that - as WaPo mentions in graf 3 and the NYT in graf 5 - Studds only revealed his sexual orientation because he was caught diddling a page.

That should have been the lede, and the AP had the good sense to make it the lede. The WaPo and the Times are guilty of excessive politeness. New England fishermen may remember Studds as a great advocate, although visions of a yellow-slickered member of the Village People come to my mind when I think of it. But for the rest of America, it will be his getting caught in flangrante that defines his legacy. He should have been a felon, but instead the Times and WaPo make him into some kind of pioneer.

At least the Times has the integrity to mention the Foley affair, which marked the first time anybody in Washington even noticed Studds was gone.


Gerry E. Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress and a demanding advocate for New England fishermen and for gay rights, died early Saturday at Boston University Medical Center, his husband said.

Former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds, the first openly gay person elected to Congress, died early Saturday at 69.

The cause was a vascular illness that led Mr. Studds to collapse while walking his dog on Oct. 3 in Boston. He was 69.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tombstone telemarketing

A delicate business: tombstone telemarketing

By SAM KENNEDY, The (Allentown) Morning Call

BETHLEHEM Pa. - Their lives intersected with a telephone message one of them would resent and the other would come to regret.

Joanne Creazzo, whose premature baby had died two weeks earlier, got the message one day in June. Jason Mueller, a tombstone telemarketer for New Britain Granite and Bronze, left it.

"I'm calling hoping to get in contact with the family of the late Anthony J. Creazzo," the 26-year-old Bethlehem Township woman heard him say after she pressed a button on her answering machine. "If I've reached this number in error, please give me a call. ... I'd be able to take your name and number off of our list. "

New Britain Granite, a lower Bucks County business, has been cold-calling potential customers since it was acquired by a regional chain several years ago.

Tombstone telemarketing might be as old as the telephone; nobody keeps track of such things in a niche business long dominated by mom-and-pop shops. But evidence suggests the practice has become more prevalent in recent years, the consequence of Wall Street-style corporatization and changing consumer habits.

These developments have intensified competition among the country's roughly 3,000 tombstone outlets. Today, the billion-dollar industry's biggest players locally and nationally are working the phones -- reflecting a general shift in the culture of death care.

In the 1980s and 1990s, marketing-savvy conglomerates swallowed up thousands of funeral homes and cemeteries, including some in the Lehigh Valley.

"When you have a publicly traded company, there's profit pressure from shareholders that affects the way the business is run at the local level," said Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national watchdog group based in South Burlington, Vt. "That can bring hard-sell sales tactics. "

Anthony was Creazzo's son's name, but she had rarely heard it spoken. His tiny heart stopped beating just moments after being born midway through the second trimester of pregnancy. To her and her family, he was simply "the baby."

The day of the phone call, Creazzo, a stay-at-home mother, had gone to Dorney Park with her husband and two sons, ages 7 and 3. She rode the carousel, ate cotton candy. It had been her first good day since she lost the baby.

Until she came home and heard her baby's name from the mouth of an unseen stranger. At that moment, her loss rushed back in all its intensity.

"As soon as I heard Anthony's name, I started bawling," Creazzo recalled. "And then I got really mad. ... "What are you trying to sell me?"'

Most people never hear about tombstone telemarketing before the death of a loved one which can be an especially sensitive time when the loss is unexpected.

In a 2003 letter to a Salt Lake City newspaper, a woman whose 3-month-old son died of sudden infant death syndrome described such a call as "tasteless and just plain cruel."

"I said, "No, thank you' and hung up the phone and cried," she wrote.

A Web search turned up similar accounts from people in New Jersey, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The telemarketers find their leads in the newspaper. They comb through the obituaries for the names of potential customers.

For both parties, the stakes are high. Tombstones also called gravestones, headstones or monuments typically sell for about $1,300. More ornate stones can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"The business is not as nice as it used to be," said Dan Kainz, manager of one of the Lehigh Valley's biggest tombstone companies, Wenz Co. "People are more aggressive."

On the main thoroughfare in the small Slate Belt town of Bangor, tombstones are on display on the lawn next to Owens Monumental. Inside, a calico cat is sprawled atop a desk. Owens does business today much as it did a century ago.

Founded in 1896, it is owned by Keith Jones who, at 68, works side-by-side with his wife, son and son-in-law, still sketching monument designs by hand. He said Owens has served generations of the same families and gets new customers mostly through word-of-mouth referrals; he used to send out brochures in the mail but has never tried telemarketing.

"I just don't think a passing is something to hound people on," Jones said.

The company that contacted the Creazzo family, by comparison, is an example of the changing nature of the tombstone industry.

New Britain Granite, too, was once a mom-and-pop shop. But today it is part of The Stefan Memorial Group, a private company that has grown through acquisitions and mergers to a total of nine outlets in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Many more former independents have been swallowed up by Rock of Ages of Graniteville, Vt., whose spokesman described telemarketing as a "normal course of business. "

Vertically integrated, Rock of Ages owns quarries, tombstone factories and outlets that brought in revenues of $90 million last year. The retail side of its business includes 78 shops, including dozens bought in a spending spree after the company went public in 1997.

The industry, swept by a wave of consolidation, also has been roiled by changing consumer habits.

Some people are buying tombstones over the Internet, which has made easy comparison-shopping possible for the first time.

Through its online sales, Wenz Co., which occupies a city block on Hamilton Street in Allentown, has been able to expand its reach throughout eastern Pennsylvania and as far away as Texas.

Other people are sidestepping traditional tombstone outlets altogether a trend that has been encouraged by Rock of Ages, which has established distribution agreements with 450 funeral homes and cemeteries.

"Families want to take care of everything at one stop," said Gregory Havrilla, past president of the Pennsylvania Monument Builders Association. "It's the Wal-Mart concept. "

And, at the very moment all this is happening, the pool of potential customers is shrinking because of cremation. Cremated remains are not normally memorialized with tombstones.

Since 2000, the cremation rate in this country jumped 6 percentage points, to 32 percent of all deaths, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That's more than four times the rate 30 years ago.

The telemarketing techniques that Stefan Memorial brought to its New Britain location were honed in the Philadelphia area, where the company has been calling survivors for at least 25 years, according to Chief Operating Officer Larry Conroy. He characterized the pitch as a soft sell.

"We're just trying to introduce ourselves and then we simply wait for an OK to proceed," he said. Conroy said people rarely take offense to the calls: "It's very minimal. "

Yet, clearly, some people do. Joanne Creazzo was one.

After the day at the amusement park with her family, the telephone message bearing her son's rarely spoken name came as a shock. Grief followed. Then anger, directed toward the young man whose voice had entered her house uninvited.

Jason Mueller, 22, of Chalfont, Bucks County, hadn't set out to be a tombstone telemarketer. He stumbled upon the job in April in the help-wanted section of the newspaper. The ad was for the position of "appointment setter. "

A 2003 graduate of Central Bucks High School, where he played in the band, he dreams of becoming a music professor. His true passion is the trombone, not tombstones. He took the job because he needed money to pay for his online classes with Western International University, an Internet school.

After trying his hand at various kinds of other work such as data entry and, most recently, as a waiter Mueller said his current occupation compares favorably.

"I've been able to help more people than I've offended," he said. "I like being able to help people in a true time of need. "

But Creazzo did not want that kind of help. After her sisters complained to New Britain Granite, Mueller sent a handwritten note on company stationery.

He wrote, "I wish to extend my deepest apologies. ... This is not an attempt to sell you something. "The sentiment, however, seemed to be contradicted by the stationery's printed message: "When you are ready to make your selection for a memorial, I shall be most pleased to serve you. "

Creazzo's sisters called New Britain Granite with a terse response: If you contact our sister again, you will hear from a lawyer.

Most people don't decide on buying a tombstone until well after the death of a loved one, according to Monument Builders of North America, a trade group based in Chicago. A wait of three months to a year is normal.

It didn't take that long for Creazzo to make up her mind. For her, a tombstone wasn't even an option.

Her son's body was cremated.

LOAD-DATE: October 11, 2006

Friday, September 29, 2006

Engraved on headstone in Montreal

Not really obituary-related, but funny and sort of on-topic.

The Itsy Bitsy Fraud

There's been a lot of ink spilled over the past week about the erroneously-reported death of Paul Vance, the songwriter of "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," a song that idiotically replays itself in my head each time I see it referenced.

I have a small role this drama, which I'll get to below.

It turned into a pretty great story because the corpse - there actually was a dead guy - had been telling friends and family for years that he was the author of the song. Why, nobody knows. Vicarious thrill, maybe.

The real Paul Vance lives in Coral Springs, Fla., and has recently been receiving $100,000 a month in royalties for his song, which is being used in a yoghurt commercial. But now he has been making ominous threats to sue the AP etc., family members are telling the press that they suspect that the fraudulent Paul Vance, whose name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, was trying to steal Vance's royalties, etc. What a bunch of crabs!

The original obit ran in the Danbury, Conn., News-Times on Sept. 26. It was then posted by some excellent person to alt.obituaries, the Usenet newsgroup that many of us monitor.

Here is a link to that original report.

My part in this story was that I then sent it to an editor at the AP who does obituaries, and she got it on the wire on Tuesday night, Sept. 26.

The AP obit ran in papers around the world - in fact some lazy editors didn't even notice the correction - the Birmingham Post ran it in Thursday's paper.

The corrections ran widely, too - the AP produced a good, tight recap on Wednesday, which was substantially recapitulated by the NYTimes. Other news organizations around the country did their own stories, interviewing the relatives and probably everybody they could find who ever heard the song - who could resist? (I leave it to the reader to discover the corrections and follow-ups.)

I am told that the Danbury News-Times ran a front-page story on its error in Thursday's paper. Unfortunately, its website is virtually unusable and it doesn't make it onto Nexis. I have a call into the original reporter, who I am guessing wishes this would all go away. I don't. It goes into the hopper with Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel. And Dorothy Fay Ritter.

And Katharine Sergava, the dancer whom the NYTimes erroneously reported dead in 2003. It happens that the Sergava case comes up in a lengthy, whiggish interview with NYTimes obituaries editor Bill McDonald. Read it


The rest of this little essay is a tangent inspired by the Vance case and McDonald’s interview.

The Sergava case happened before McDonald's watch, but it was a particularly wretched case of journalistic malpractice - it was lifted straight from the London Telegraph, with no checking. Extra bad, because Sergava supposedly died in the USA. On the other hand it was a nice obit, and a lot more extensive than the obit the Times ran two years later when Sergava actually died (apparently!) To its credit, the Times never attempted to cover up this error, although it never quite explained it, either. The correction blamed “reporting and editing errors” and claimed it was just a case of “omitted attribution,” as if the Times would ever print an obit attributed solely to the Telegraph. The Times subsequently instituted a policy mandating that every obit have a graf 2 sourcing the story.

What’s irritating about McDonald’s interview is how much like a public utility he wants his page to be.

The mechanical, boring graf 2? McDonald: “From that day forward it has been ironclad policy at the Times to devote the second paragraph of every obit to answering a simple question about a death that every reader is entitled to ask: How do you know — who told you?”

OK, but are you going to do that with every fact in your story? It could be argued that some facts are more important than others, and death is the ultimate personal fact. But where does it end? We have newspapers and reporters so that somebody will go out and check the facts on our behalf. Yes, we want to be told who sources are, especially of information that could potentially be an opinion or in somebody’s interest. But this feels to me more like ass-covering. As if they are saying, “if this turns out to be untrue, it is not the Times’s fault.” That’s why it feels so bureaucratic and encumbering in the actual obits – it’s like a form you have to fill out, and a way of evading responsibility – almost in this way the opposite of the accuracy that we want in obits.

That original AP obit of Vance had one of those grafs, too: “The New Milford-raised Vance, whose real name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, died Sept. 6 at his home in Ormond Beach, Fla., said his wife of 32 years, Rose Leroux. He had been battling lung cancer for two years.”

The mechanical, boring graf 2 certainly didn’t prevent the error – so what did it accomplish? I guess it allows us to shift blame to Valkenburgh, or to his widow.

Unfortunately, this practice is creeping into obits in general – LATimes does it routinely although the Washington Post doesn’t. The AP does it, but there it is a very good thing because it gives local reporters who want to follow up and expand a story a good head start. In this case it gave reporters a chance to contact Valkenbugh’s widow.

I return to my main point: it is the reporter’s contract with the newspaper and the newspaper’s contract with readers that what is appearing is facts, that efforts have been made to confirm them. But if facts were the only thing at stake, we would not have need for obituarists – just lists of names and facts. We also want a pleasurable read – that’s the whole reason many of us are in this business in the first place. The graf 2 is a real buzz-kill.

One more thing in McDonald’s lengthy (and to be fair occasionally very interesting and smart) interview:

“The 2003 episode confirmed in our minds the need to be as forthcoming with our readers about any given death as we can. That includes reporting the cause. In every obit, no matter how old the subject, we endeavor to give the cause of death, as related to us by reliable sources, like the people we quote in confirming the death.”

But the cause of death is so boring and distracting! Yes, if somebody dies young or in an interesting way. But how is it “information” that somebody died of a heart attack rather than a stroke? And aren’t their different kinds of heart attacks? Why is it “lung cancer” in one obit and just plain “cancer” in another? Often-times somebody has had “terminal” cancer, then dies from an opportunistic infection like pneumonia. In what sense is it a fact that he died of pneumonia? It is a bureaucratic fact – the one that appears on the death certificate. But the real fact may be that the decedent was bed-ridden for years. That might be something worth talking about in an obit – for instance in talking about why a public person suddenly stops being public a few years before death. But such information very seldom appears.

Again, the McDonald interview:

“[S]ome papers, particularly in Britain, still cling to their Victorian sense of decorum by unilaterally withholding the cause of death. We're in the business of reporting what we know, when it's confirmed, not withholding it. And in reporting on a death, which is news, we think the cause is eminently germane. A reporter who writes a story about a train wreck without saying how it happened wouldn't last long in this line of work.”

Oh puh-leez – the self congratulation is hyperoleaginous. If you don’t know five times more facts than appear in your article, you’re not doing your job. The whole craft of writing is as much about deciding what to leave out as deciding what to leave in – like sculpture. Yes, when Edward Albert dies at 55 it is worth knowing he had lung cancer, and more amusingly, in Claire Martin’s great obit last week of Thomas Cook, that the accident-prone guy died by being run over by a car (thought I wanted more details: was it a RED car?)

I recommend everybody go and read the McDonald interview – it’s a peep inside the dusky boudoir of Times obits. But don’t expect to come away terribly stimulated.

As for Vance – all of this could have been avoided by a call to his co-writer, but that might be a bit much to ask on deadline, which is how the story was written. This was tricky one. Sometimes errors happen. You get false positives in statistical studies – five percent of the time with two standard deviations. This is considered reliable in sociology. Obituarists do a hell of a lot better than that reporting deaths – without the mechanical, boring graf 2.

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Died Doing What He Loved"

Why do (some) obit writers do that?? It's so aggravating.
I agree with Kathy Kemp of the Birmingham (Ala.) News ... (no link available, posted on alt.obits)
and Trevor Brown, former journalism dean, Indiana University (posted 9/25 on Romenesko's Web site)

Living Doing What You Love Is The Best
FROM: The Birmingham (Alabama) News ~ By Kathy Kemp
I don't know if you've noticed this, but often, when a person dies unexpectedly - especially while mountain climbing, skydiving or flying solo over the Bermuda triangle - we're told he "died doing what he loved."
Latest example: Steve Irwin, Australia's intrepid and beloved crocodile hunter, killed Monday when a stingray pierced his heart while Irwin filmed a TV segment in the Great Barrier Reef. Immediately, news organizations reported Irwin had "died doing what he loved."
They were quoting Irwin's manager, John Stainton, who added that Irwin "left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind."
Stainton meant well, of course. But let's take a moment to think about this. Irwin spoke often of his love of family, of conservation and of reptiles and sea creatures. He never mentioned a desire to yank a stingray's barb from his chest and then gasp a final breath.
Go to Google and type in "died doing what he loved" and you'll get 1,290,000 responses (type in "doing what she loved" and you'll net 423 more). Those words are spoken about soldiers killed in Iraq and grandfathers who dropped dead of heart attacks while playing baseball with the kids.
The news media sometimes promote the cliché. A reporter for The Register Guard in Eugene, Ore., didn't rely on friends or family to speak the dreaded words: "Jane Vanneman Higdon died doing what she loved," declares the first sentence on a story in June detailing how Higdon had fallen off her bike and been hit by a truck.
Friends told the reporter that Higdon, 47, loved her husband, endurance sports and her job as a nurse. None mentioned that she looked forward to being crushed by a loaded logging truck.
When extreme skier Douglas Coombs was killed in May in a skiing accident, NPR commentator Alex Markels started a tribute to Coombs by saying, "There's probably no obituary more admiring of a man than to say that he died doing what he loved."
I don't know of any research confirming that dying happy equals dying well, but lots of people clearly want to believe it. In Tennessee just last week, 25-year-old Kristin Reese, a member of a women's football team, died in a motorcycle accident. Her coach, Steve Lewis, couldn't help himself. "She died doing what she loved. I hope I can die doing what I love, and I hope everybody else can too," he said.
Fewer of us seem content anymore just to say a prayer and mourn the dead. We live in exciting times that require exciting endings. Perhaps human nature dictates our search for meaning in tragedy, whether it involves a famous adventurer, an astronaut or a friend's ill mother. We don't want to think that the dead might have suffered or perhaps wished, in those final moments, to celebrate another birthday, to drive the kids to school tomorrow or to hunt for exotic creatures in another ocean on another day.
The truth is, if we're lucky, we live doing what we love. If we're blessed, our lives have meaning that transcends how we die.
And if you ask me, that's enough.

----and -------

From: Trevor Brown, Former journalism dean, Indiana University
After yanking a limb driven into the lawn like a javelin and then heaving it into the neighbor's yard, I wondered again at Steve Irwin's death. "He left this world in a peaceful and happy state of mind," a fellow snorkeler said, "doing what he loved best." I doubt that, in the moments after the stingray's barb pierced his heart, Irwin was in a peaceful and happy state of mind. But I'm sick of the unctuous bromide that so-and-so died doing what he loved best.It could happen that a plunging limb from the trees at the bottom of our garden will take me out while I'm mowing. Yes, I enjoy mucking about on my John Deere LT133. But, please, please, I've told my wife and children, no line in my obituary, "He died doing what he loved best." I've implored them to edit an obituary like this:
Trevor Brown, 69, died Monday in his home. His wife, Charlene, found him slumped over on a couch in the living room, a victim, apparently, of a heart attack while doing the New York Times crossword. Preliminary speculation is that he was entering an answer to 9-across -- "One making a point at church?" -- when he succumbed. He had written only "E-L" to the five-letter answer and still clutched his favorite pencil, a 0.7 Pentel with a large eraser. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword, said, "I met Trevor Brown only once during a visit some years ago to Indiana University and did not learn that he was a crossword fan until after his death. Then I was surprised to discover that a faculty member at my alma mater was rarely able to get beyond Monday's crossword, the least challenging of the week's puzzles, until I was told he was a dean. It must be of great comfort to the family that Dean Brown died doing what he loved best. By the way, the answer to 9-across in this Monday's puzzle was SPIRE."Coaches like you should urge obit writers to resist the quote of comfort from well-meaning family and friends. I say, go for "The horror! The horror!"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How they lived their 100-plus years

Nothing is sadder than an obit for a centenarian, which says little more than "This person lived a really long time."

I recently wrote an obit that ran in The Plain Dealer on Aug. 16, 2006, for Florence Homan, who had been the oldest person in Ohio. Age 112. A lot of years, and yet there was little more for me to say about her.

She had outlived her husband. She had no children. The "next of kin," who handled her funeral arrangements, was a stepsomething-in-law of a relative of her husband's a few times removed.

The only story about her that I could find in our archives was written a few months earlier when the previous oldest-person-in-Ohio died. It was more about centenarians in general than it was about Florence in particular.

I put together a short obit that said she:
(1)was born Florence Wilker on Nov. 18, 1893, in Middleburg Township, more than 30 years before the area was incorporated as the village of Middleburg Heights;
(2)grew up on a farm;
(3)had an 8th-grade education;
(4)worked for Higbee's department store as a seamstress for more than 50 years;
(5)married a railroad worker, who was 10 years her junior, in 1941;
(6)lived most of her life in Cleveland in a house that was torn down to make way for the construction of an interstate highway;
(7)moved to the suburbs;
(8)was widowed in 1988;
(9)and moved into a nursing home at age 105.

That's actually a lot more than I could dig up about other centenarians, who have died on my watch. I have to believe there was much more to tell about Florence. I just couldn't find people or documentation that could help me get it together on deadline.

Bryan Marquard's obit for artist Polly Thayer Starr, which ran in the Sept. 3, 2006, edition of the Boston Globe shows a centenarian, who lived a fascinating 101 years.

Polly had children and friends with sundry details about her New England ancestry, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and a host of Episcopalian ministers, her art training and career, marriage and motherhood.

And the Smithsonian Institution had interviewed her 11 years before her death.

Bryan was able to gather a considerable amount of information about this centenarian. And he selected terrific facts and quotes that made this a delightful obit to read.

He included details about her work - portraits that range from literal to ethereal; to landscapes illuminating the spirit of a milieu; to a series of paintings capturing the life span of a thistle - that illustrate the depth of her art.

And this revealing quote from Polly's Smithsonian interview: "I was pretty gun-shy of marriage when it would mean giving up painting. . . . It took a long time to make up my mind."

Here are more gems:

"You never achieve what you want," she told a friend late in life, "but you're always getting nearer to the essence . . . and that's a search that is all important."

From one of her daughters: "She could pat bumblebees. While he was on the flower, she would take her finger and stroke his fur and his wings would buzz like mad, and he wouldn't fly away until she stopped. It always seemed to me the equivalent of a cat's purr."

She became a Quaker and ventured away from home, seeking new inspiration. She attended wrestling matches and was invited into an operating room to watch surgery, telling a friend that "to see the living organs pushing up uncovered out of a woman's body . . . I forgot everything in the wonder of it."

Then, in her 70s, she developed glaucoma and macular degeneration. Before completely losing her sight, her final works in her late 80s were drawings of a thistle and a diaphanous self-portrait that seemed to place her both in this world and the next.

Bryan ended the story with this: The pull of creativity, she told the Smithsonian, never ceases. "It's the Hound of Heaven," she said with a chuckle. "It's always after you."

Please share your favorite centenarian-obit stories and tips on how to gather info about the dearly departed, whose family and friends are long departed.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eugene Crawford, physiology/biophysics professor, boxing champ

I love Gerry Hostetler's "It's a Matter of Life" column that runs in the Charlotte Observer.

In her Aug. 30, 2006, column about the late Eugene Carson "Gene" Crawford Jr., a retired University of Kentucky physiology and biophysics professor and Golden Gloves Hall of Fame boxer, Gerry chooses a fascinating subject and uses quotes that make you want to smile.

She writes: Gene was well-known in the Carolinas for his boxing ability, but even better known nationally for his physiological research. . . His academic career is stellar.

Crawford studied with eminent physiologist Knut Schmidt-Nielsen at Duke University.

"He spoke glowingly of going to Australia with Schmidt-Nielsen and studying camels and ostriches," said son-in-law Tracy Campbell.

Early in the piece, Gerry quotes Carl Holt, a Golden Gloves HOF board member: "Looking at him, you didn't think he was a boxer, but he was a good little ol' fighter."

She gives a detailed record of Crawford's impressive (30 wins, 1 draw, four losses) but brief (1949-1952) boxing career. More than half of his wins were by knockout.

Gene joined the Navy and promptly fought and defeated the brigade champion. After his discharge, he fought four professional fights and won them. He was invited to try out for the 1952 U.S. Olympic trials, but did not accept. He was about to marry sweetheart Helen Suggs, whom he spotted at a public park in Durham.

Then comes this nifty quote from Crawford's sister: "He was about 18 and she was ... very pretty."

Later in life, Crawford's wife developed Pick's disease, which cost her the ability to speak. When Gene began losing his sight, folks asked how they would manage life together. "I will take care of Helen and Helen will be my eyes," he answered.

And so she was, until her death five years ago. And Gene was a good little ol' fighter, right up to the end.

Excellent ending, Gerry!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Obit for 2-year-old, platform for discussing palliative care for babies

In her Aug. 29, 2006, Lifelines column in the Toronto Star, Catherine Dunphy tells the story of Sasha Bella, 2-year-old daughter of Pamela Stein and Jonathan Blumberg, who spent most of her brief life dying.

Cathy showed Sasha's kiddie qualities. She writes the sick baby was noisy, intense, passionate, and she loved an audience.

While strangers may have seen that her skin was jaundiced and her belly distended, What her parents saw were her long fingers that could turn fragile pages in a telephone book without tearing them, her love of chips, crushed ice and watermelon toothpaste, the way she danced in her crib to Stevie Wonder, the big grin with which she'd greet her dad, how she would slap her forehead as if to say "Oy vey."

The writer explained Sasha's illness in layman's terms:
Born with a complex and very serious form of the rare Alagille Syndrome and a paucity of bile ducts causing bleeding and relentless internal itching, Sasha was missing the connection from her heart to her lungs.

It's clear that Cathy and Sasha's parents used this obit to tell readers that palliative care is for babies too and that To honour her, Stein and Blumberg have set up the Sasha Bella Fund through the Sick Kids Foundation to explore ways to support the parents — and perhaps some staff — of dying babies and children in a hospital geared and better suited to miracles.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Psycho scriptwriter, songwriter

Adam Bernstein's Aug. 30, 2006, obit for
Joseph Stefano gives the dead writer's scriptography, enhanced by details of what influenced Stefano's decisions in crafting his stories.

Stefano wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" based on the novel of the same name. The first shock of the film is the killing off of the leading lady, played by then mega-movie-star Janet Leigh, in the first 20 minutes. Adam explains how the script craftsman's introduction of Leigh's character brilliantly differed from the novel.

Adam also pointed out early in the obit that Stefano, who also wrote for the science fiction TV series "The Outer Limits," had begun his entertainment career as a minor Greenwich Village showman and penned songs for Las Vegas showman Donn Arden.

Just before the obit's closing credits, a.k.a. list of surviving relatives, Adam throws in this gem:

Mr. Stefano had an enormous sheet-music collection and once spent five hours challenging pianist Michael Feinstein about who could name increasingly obscure Tin Pan Alley songs.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Death of Australia's best-known obituary writer

It's our business to tell our readers when a fellow human being has died. It's even harder when the dearly departed is someone you know and feel is one of your own.

Philip Jones, the obit writer of Oz, who spoke to gatherings of grimsters at a couple of Great Obituary Writers Conferences, has died.

His fellow Aussie Nigel Starck, internationally known obits scholar, said he had just recommended Philip to a Melbourne company for a series of corporate obituaries, when he read about his death at, an Australian electronic newsletter site.

Here is the obit written by Crikey arts correspondent Stephen Feneley, who also counted Philip as one of his own:

Vale Philip Jones
By arts correspondent Stephen Feneley

Australia's best-known obituary writer is dead, so it will be left to lesser known and less capable obituarists to pen tributes to what was an extraordinarily varied and interesting life.

Philip Jones died on Friday, aged 74, of a suspected heart attack. I counted him as a friend but, regrettably, our friendship was only forged in relatively recent times. He was an odd mix -- self-effacing and melancholic, funny and mischievous, single-minded and fearless. He managed to upset many prominent figures, including Barry Humphries and the widow of artist Sid Nolan.

Jones and his long-time partner Barrie Reid lived for 25 years with the renowned art patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heide, the farm on the outskirts of Melbourne that had earlier been the gathering point for an extraordinary group of artists, including Sid Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester.

After the deaths of John and Sunday in 1981, the relationship between Jones and Barrie Reid fell apart, with Jones agreeing to leave old Heide farm house. Under the terms of the Reeds' will, the house was to go to whoever lived the longest out of Reid and Jones, but after Reid died in 1995, Jones was blocked from regaining possession of the house, something that remained a cause of bitterness and sadness until he died.

Nevertheless Reid's death proved to be the catalyst for Jones to make a career change in his autumn years. He wrote a controversial warts-and-all obituary of his ex-lover, and the notoriety he gained from it launched him into a whole new career chronicling the lives of the recently departed. He had previously worked as an actor and bookseller.

As well as obits, Jones also wrote occasional features and op-ed pieces, his most recent appearing in The Age only the weekend before last. It was an angry tirade on the state of contemporary culture, with Jones declaring that art -- instead of being a revolutionary activity -- had become "an aspect of lifestyle". He said too much art was being made today and he dismissed most of it as "clapped-out copies of the modern movement that expired a quarter of century ago".

Coming from someone who'd spent the best part of his life celebrating Australian culture, it was a very angry polemic, with Jones clearly believing that less is more. "A plethora of activity denigrates any human activity, be it food, s-x, art or even sport. In short, the quality of any human activity is mitigated by satiety."

I spoke to him the day after the op-ed piece was published to congratulate him on being so forthright. In his inimitably self-deprecating yet chuffed-with-himself way, he said he might have gone a bit too far but was bored with everyone being in thunderous agreement about everything and wanted to stir things up a bit. That was our last conversation.

Jones had been battling debilitating depression for many months. He suffered a major setback late last year when a publishing deal to write the definitive biography on Sidney Nolan fell through after Nolan's widow refused to cooperate. Penguin had given him a substantial advance, most of which he spent on two research trips to the UK before Lady (Mary) Nolan denied him access to her late husband's papers. Penguin didn't ask for the money back but that didn't assuage Jones's guilt at failing to deliver. He'd been severely critical of Nolan, whom he described as a psychopath, and other expatriates, including Barry Humphries, in his memoir Art & Life, published two years ago.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Writing about the dead, a topic at the Society of Professional Journalists National Conference

Larken Bradley of the Point Reyes Light, Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post and I (Alana Baranick of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio) are the panelists for a session on obituary writing at the Society of Professional Journalists National Conference at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this week.

Our session is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 25, from 10:45-11:45 a.m.

If you attend the conference, please stop by and say, "Hi." If you're there on Friday, but won't be at our session, you may find at least one of us in the booksellers area.

I'll be at the Marion Street Press table, signing copies of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers," which I wrote with Jim Sheeler, now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning feature writer for the Rocky Mountain News, and Stephen Miller, obits editor for the New York Sun and writer of the Wall Street Journal's new obits column, "Remembrances." (Sorry. Those two accomplished guys won't be there.)

For more information about the Society of Professional Journalists and the conference, go to:

Friday, August 18, 2006

Obit Laureate -- Fantastic!

The Morning News (online magazine) has recent obituaries — a gong striker, a burger matriarch, a bagpipe virtuoso— transformed into light verse. See this link

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Wall Street Journal finally has obits!!!

On Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, The Wall Street Journal debuted "Remembrances," which it calls "a weekly column that notes the passing of people who have left an imprint on the world of business."

Tracking the "imprints" is Stephen Miller, creator and editor of The New York Sun's obituary section, co-author of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers," and regular contributor to his blog.

Way to go, Steve!

Steve's first WSJ column notes the death of Govindappa Venkataswamy, an ophthamologist who patterned the system his eye-care clinics use to provide cataract surgery to millions in India after the way McDonald's restaurants serve Big Macs to countless fast-food junkies around the world.

The headline: "McSurgery: A Man Who Saved 2.4 Million Eyes."

The big story is followed by a few obit briefs for other recently deceased folks who made their mark on the business world.

Sorry. I can't give you a link to the full Venkataswamy obit. You have to subscribe to WSJ or find someone who has a copy to read it. If you don't want to subscribe, you might consider buying the Weekend WSJ to read "Remembrances" in the future.

Saturday, August 05, 2006, Moving Tributes

Editor & Publisher Online wanted to know what obituary writers think of and its multimedia Moving Tributes.

Sarah Weber, an E&P Onliner, sought answers from:

Dick Peery, my partner-in-grim, my mentor and the senior obit writer at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio;

Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, its annual Great Obituary Writers Conferences and;

and Steve Miller, obits editor at The New York Sun and co-author of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers."

In Weber's online article, "Multimedia Online Memorials Draw Mixed Reviews From Obit Editors," Dick (whose byline is Richard M. Peery) says he doesn’t feel threatened by the Moving Tributes section and points out that these family-composed items should not be confused with obituaries written by journalists.

“If people have a real story to tell about their loved one, I don’t see them passing us up to get on As long as papers don’t pick these things up and run these as stories, I’m okay with it."

From her perspective as probably the most knowledgeable readers of obituaries and dedicated friend of obituary writers from publications around the world, Carolyn sees value in and its Moving Tributes, but says that value may be limited to folks, who are Web savvy and, the article implies, have the means to pay for the service.

“It serves a segment of the community for sure,” Gilbert said, “but maybe the more sophisticated clientele.”

Steve Miller (whose byline is Stephen Miller) told Weber what he really thinks.

“From my point of view, they’re a pain in the butt,” said Miller.

His chief complaint is that takes away the ability to browse through paid obits, making it difficult to find interesting obit subjects.

"I don’t like the whole interface; if you don’t know the person’s name that you’re looking for, you have to click through the whole page. I want to see a whole string of stuff to scan real quickly to find the important information, and they don’t make that possible.”

I have found helpful when I'm trying to verify the deaths of potential obit subjects who have died outside of the Cleveland area.

As for Moving Tributes, I haven't used it for this yet, but I see that these could be helpful in getting an idea of the deceased's life, occupation, interests, etc.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Wiki Obituary

In a recent interview with, ex-reporter Jayson Blair lamented the fact that his obit will surely lead with his fall from grace at The New York Times.

"I cannot imagine anything I could do, no matter how long I live, that will change that first line of my obituary," Blair said.

In response to this statement, issued a challenge to its readers: Write the first sentence Blair's obituary. The winner of the contest will receive a one-year subscription to Times Select.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

George Hopkins died again Friday.

Once again, Kay Powell has come up with an opening hook to catch the attention of Atlanta Journal-Constitution readers.

You have to keep reading her July 18, 2006, obit for George Hopkins, if you want to know how he manage to die AGAIN.

Was he a peer of Dracula, an undead vampire who was finally done in by a stake through the heart? Did he have a resurrection of biblical proportions? Or did some obituary writer kill him off prematurely years ago?

No. None of the above.

Kay writes:

The first time he died, the experienced World War II hard hat diver was a law school student testing experimental diving equipment. He was resuscitated and suffered only a bout with pneumonia.

" 'Let me tell you about the time I died,' that was his big introduction," said his daughter Edith Collins of Buford. "He said it was the most peaceful experience of his life. I don't think he dived in experimental equipment again."

This time he died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his Atlanta residence.

Be sure to read the rest of the twice-dead Hopkins' story, told by Kay, the supreme Southern storyteller.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Fred Clark's Last Laugh

My View from the Reference Desk - Occasional Musings on
the World of Obits from Tom Hobbs:

'Ole Fred Clark was a jokester, all right. So it was only fitting that he got his last laugh -- and more than the allotted 15 minutes of fame -- on July 9 when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran his self-penned obituary. The family had to tweak it a bit, as Fred had never expected to die as the result of an automobile accident. The spirit of the man shines through though, and we are all a bit the poorer for his passing.

It's pretty clear that this 61 year old Richmond resident and Verizon retiree was a rascal at heart. He wanted us to know of his affection for "bacon, butter, cigars, and bourbon" but he was clear on this: it was the sight of his wonderful wife Alice that really lit up his world. Fred was a patriot and a godly man in his way. He didn't hold politicians in high regard, though, as he professed his amazement at "what the voters would tolerate." Sorry that he couldn't realize his final wish -- "to be run over by a beer truck on the way to the liquor store to buy booze for a double date to include his wife, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter to crash an ACLU cocktail party" -- Fred asked that you commemorate his passing by making a "sizeable purchase" of spirits to get rip roaring drunk at home "with someone you love or hope to make love to." Something else about Fred . . . he wanted you to know that "he never peed in the shower - on purpose."

In a Times-Dispatch follow up piece running on July 11, Fred's son confirmed that his Dad had tamed the rowdy ways some during his last years but would still be going out literally with a bang. Fred's remains are to be shot from a cannon later this summer at a family party.

Clearly Fred Clark's obituary struck a responsive chord all across the political spectrum. As of late July 17, his guestbook at the online obit contained 111 pages of entries.

Way to go, Fred! (Really!)

That's this View from the Reference Desk. I hope to be with you again from time to time.

(Tom Hobbs is a Reference Librarian at the University of South Carolina Aiken.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

New published story about the 8th and other Greats

Cathy Dunphy's editors at the Toronto Star gave her so much space for "Death Becomes Us," a feature about the 8th Great Obituary Writers Conference, that she added observations and lessons from the 6th and 7th Greats.

Great job, Cathy. I especially enjoyed the stranger's comment about obit writers being poets. Nice touch.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Censoring paid obituaries/death notices.

Cathy Dunphy, writer of the Toronto Star's "Lifelines" feature, wants to know about other newspapers' policies regarding the censoring of paid obits, a.k.a. death notices.

In lieu of a request for memorial donations in a paid obit, the bereaved relatives of one deceased mom asked mourners to wage a letter-writing campaign. They were unhappy about the "uneven" health care their mom had received from professional caregivers.

They ended their prepared obituary with a request that mourners send letters to the minister of health, requesting that more funds go toward providing the elderly with safe and dignified care in their final days.

Cathy's paper wouldn't run the request line because they deemed it too political.

Cathy said: "Our paper's classified people declared that this was a political statement and that our policy forbids running it. They also said that paid death notices are officially considered as editorial material. (That was a surprise.) It ran in the Globe and Mail though, which is where I saw it.

"Do you know anything about this issue? Our ombud is looking into it and asked me if I knew what other papers' policies are.

"Thanks for anything you can do."

Please share your thoughts on this one.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

USA T'other day

And, as every year, Señor McKie's cowboy hat gets all the attention in USA Today today, also featuring Marilyn reading from The Dead Beat. Sounds like another great conference. And onwards to the ninth! I wonder if Isabel and I could arrange it for Spain next time?

USA Today's account of the 8th

Craig Wilson's account is here. Thanks, Craig.

8th Great

In my jetlagged haze, I've found a few moments to pen a piece for The Guardian's website about this year's conference. Good to see everyone again.,,1802801,00.html

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The 8th was Great!

Approximately 40 conferees (plus 7 spouses) shared obit-writing anecdotes, philosophies and tips during conference sessions, over enchiladas, ice cream or brewskis at various eateries and bars and sometimes in front of cameras wielded by 2 filmmaking crews (10 people in all) at the 8th Great Obituary Writers Conference held last weekend at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M.

I won't identify all the participants here, but I will mention the presenters.

Bob Chaundy talked about assembling obituaries - complete with news, TV and film clips, previously recorded interviews with the deceased celebrity and man-on-the-street comments - for the BBC television news. Most interesting: How Bob put together an audiovisual obit for a rarely filmed scientist who discovered, identified or insert-the-correct-past-tense-verb-here DNA.

Kay Powell, the always delightful obituaries editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, talked about the history of obits for women and encouraged us to find interesting recently deceased women to write about. Mack Lundstrom (San Jose State University professor), Cathy Dunphy (Toronto Star reporter and journalism professor) and Tom Berner (retired Pennsylvania State University professor) talked about reporting suicides in obits. Spencer Michlin, who calls himself an iconoclast from Dallas, promoted family-written-and-paid-for obits that need not meet journalistic standards of truth or style.

Tim Bullamore, freelance obit writer who now sums up lives for The Daily Telegraph of London, explained how obits, similar to the New York Times' heralded "Portraits of Grief" series for folks who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, were done for victims of terrorist attacks in London and Bali. He recommended that every newspaper have a plan for such events.

Marilyn Johnson, author of "The Dead Beat," wanted us to adopt specific terminology for the standard parts of the obituary, so we obit writers could have a common language. While we all love Marilyn and enjoyed her stories and opinions, reaction to her suggested obit lingo was mixed. Some in our number felt we should stick with common newspaper terms for story parts. Having a separate language peculiar to obits could set us back in the respect we've worked so hard and so long to gain from our newspaper colleagues, who haven't always regarded obit writing as real journalism. Some conferees pointed out that "tombstone," Marilyn's term for the phrase in which we sum up a person's life, is what some of us call details - such as birth and death dates - that show up in an obit info box. During the Q&A, the word "furniture," which Mack Lundstrom uses for the mandatory list of survivors and funeral services that bog down our storytelling efforts, was mentioned. Interestingly, Marilyn's "tombstone" and Mack's "furniture" were used repeatedly during discussions throughout the conference.

Stephen Miller, obits editor at the New York Sun and a co-author (with me - Alana Baranick - and Jim Sheeler) of "Life on the Death Beat," talked about the only obit that won a Pulitzer Prize, appropriately for "deadline" reporting, and the amazing life of that Pulitzer-winning reporter, who is still living and writing under a different name.

Jim Sheeler, our co-author and a Rocky Mountain News general assignment reporter who sometimes pens obits, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing - but not for an obit. He was the star of the 8th Great show. As usual, we sniffled through his heartstrings-tugging stories about military personnel who died too young. Jim himself got choked up when International Association of Obituarists founder and conference diva Carolyn Gilbert inducted him into the IAO Hall of Fame.

Betty Abah, a journalist from Nigeria and an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow with Sheeler's Rocky Mountain News, gave an impassioned presentation titled "Holding the Corrupt Dead Accountable, Celebrating the Wretched of the Earth: A Case for Obit Writing in Africa."

Two other conference newcomers, neither of whom write obits but whose work involves gathering facts about people's lives, also gave presentations.

EllynAnne Geisel, whose thick North Carolina accent has not been diluted after living for decades in Pueblo, Colo., told us some interesting stories about people she learned about while working on "The Apron Book," her aptly titled book about - you guessed it - aprons.

Pam Vetter, a former TV reporter, told us about her work as a funeral celebrant. She prepares and conducts funeral services and eulogies for folks who don't want formal religious rites. She's kind of like the funeral-arranging version of a wedding planner.

Andrew McKie wrapped up the conference with a general talk about the importance of writing obits. I really liked this. I hope future conferences end with similar tie-up-the-loose-ends sessions, led by veteran obit writers, with questions and comments from the conferees.

Carolyn told us to circle June 14-16 on the 2007 calendar for the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference, but she hasn't decided on the location. She mentioned three potential sites, but didn't identify them to us. She said she will consult with a few IAO members before making a decision.

I for one hope the 9th Great is not in Las Vegas, N.M., again. I'd like a change of scenery.

But I also hope it's not in Israel, which was mentioned last year as a possibility for 2007. If it's held overseas, I'll have to miss it. I can't afford the expense or the time for such a trip.

Please post your comments about the 8th and 9th Great Obituary Writers Conferences.

The internet and the future of death

Sadly, I couldn't make it to this year's Obituary Writers' Conference, and due to lack of internet and lack of time, I didn't even manage to get my essay sent in time to make it into the brochure (sorry Carolyn!). Did you all have fun? Did you miss me?

Anyway, due to the wonders of the interwebnet, I can post my slightly flabby piece on here for you all. It's a development of a piece I wrote not long ago about the objects we leave behind. And hopefully it might get a few people thinking.

All thoughts, replies, comments gratefully perceived.


The internet and the future of death

Within three generations, people start to disappear.

A century and a half from now, there will be no-one who remembers first-hand what anyone now living was like. They will exist as faint traces from the past, appearing only randomly in whatever mementoes journalism, sheer luck and bureaucratic documents create.

What remains in your home now from 1856? Or even 1906? If you’re lucky, perhaps a pile of faded photographs, a few sticks of furniture, the detritus of heirloom – medals, coils, lace tablecloths. Personal correspondence, wrapped in string or ribbon; handwritten names inside the front covers of books; savings books, registered at long-disappeared addresses, in denominations that no longer exist.

And then there is the official, where names are inscribed and given wider context by an official seal. Public records of birth, marriage, divorce and death. Housing deeds. Wills and testaments. Changes of name. Royally bestowed honours. Formations and cessations of companies. Planning permission. Just the facts, on the record, and names there for anyone who wants to find them. It’s not our most important life moments that live on – it’s the ones that are most legally significant. And then there's the added colour of self-appointed officialdom. Those publications that, by common consent, offer their own barometers of societal participation. The OED. The Guinness Book of Records. Who's Who. Hansard. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wisden. Insert your own cultural equivalent here.

What does this have to do with obituaries? An awful lot, as the nature of this detritus is changing – and what it is changing to will have an enormous impact on the research methods of the next generation of obituary writers.

Firstly, we don't tend to hang onto useful objects for as long as our great-grandfathers did - increased commerce, marketing and wealth have helped our tastes to change, quickly and almost constantly. Furniture lasts perhaps ten years, not generations. The few objects that will remain from us are rarely useful as anything but emotive hand-me-downs.

Secondly, who is to say that our legacy will exist through physical objects? Think of your grandmother’s yellowing love letters, your childhood photographs – or those of your subjects, that have helped you in your research. Who now aged under 30 handwrites a letter? How often do digital photos actually get printed? (And even when they are, modern inks and papers are known to be less durable.) Where once we wrote, now we make phone calls, where meaningful words and significant moments vanish along the line and into the ether as suddenly as they are called into existence.

Will any of our correspondence, our photography, our private, tender moments be available for our grandchildren? Will emails last that long? And will they even be available to journalists of today, as passwords and computer failure keep us from accessing the finer details of their lives. As more objects, from books to photographs, become virtual, so does the quantity of data at our disposal.

If we do assume the constancy of data (groups like the internet archive are fighting to store as much as they can), then what are the consequences of this? The obituarists and, in turn, our great-grandchildren will read our blogs and our messageboard postings, see our online photo streams and watch our videocasts, as the archived caches of Google Past make it into classrooms and universities.

The concept of webpage as historical document is a sobering one. Self-promotion and overexaggeration in the online public arenas are not new phenomena, but for the first time, it is not our carefully chosen words but the wider, poorly phrased public arena that will outlast us. Finding out usernames, working out passwords, scraping antique hard drives for all but useless personal information will become a socially useful art in itself. Hackaeologists will appear as the new society’s historians.

And who will the virtual obituarists be? Online social networks are already changing the nature of friendships, of who your neighbour is and how people know each other. A familiar face around town is just as likely to be a familiar face in the online group. It can surely only be a matter of time before MySpace or LiveJournal appoints its own obituary professional, sensitive to the unique bonds that form over time in virtual public spaces, talking not to relatives but friends about their memories of people they have never met, on the other side of the globe. One obituary for meatspace, one for virtual space. I suspect that the people they will document may often appear markedly different in each.

Just as personal relationships and what we understand of as society is changing thanks to the internet, so will personal histories and obituary writing. Already, an online world called Second Life has its own embedded journalist, whose weblog is seen as the communty’s newspaper. And where there are communities and there’s a newspaper, there’s always a need for well-written, well-researched obituaries. The skills and sensibilities of their writers will be the same, but the tools markedly different.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Ironic headlines

You've got to respect a headline writer who gets right in somebody's face, even if that face belongs to a dead man.

This is something that occasionally happens: a person will acquire a nickname or be known for some dubious achievement that they find impossible to live down, and when they die - bang! - there it is in the headline. In this case, Huston hated being called "Brightest Boy" - it says so a couple of grafs down! But Brightest Boy he will be forever. Sorry Wilbur.

Wilber B. Huston, 93; Nation's 'Brightest Boy' Became Rocket Scientist
From Times Staff and Wire Reports
June 12, 2006

Wilber B. Huston, 93, who was selected by Thomas Edison as the nation's brightest boy in 1929 and later became a rocket scientist for NASA, died of respiratory failure May 25 at his home in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

In a nationwide search for young geniuses, Huston was chosen by a panel that included Edison, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. His prize was four years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paid for by Edison. Huston was often referred to as "America's brightest boy," a label that he disliked.

After working for Edison's youngest son at a research laboratory, Huston was drafted into the Army, where he taught celestial navigation to combat-bound Army Air Forces bomber crews. By 1944, he was working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would become NASA.

He later joined the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and was the mission director for the launching of seven weather satellites. Huston also participated in the manned space-flight program, developing a chart to let Mercury astronauts estimate their longitude based on the view out the space capsule's window.

He retired from government work in 1974 and became a private consultant.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fictional obit writers on film and in print

In the movie, "Closer," actor Jude Law portrays an obituary writer for a London newspaper. I was infuriated when his character told Natalie Portman's that obit writing is the Siberia of journalism.

I laughed at the opening scene of "Perfect" in which John Travolta is a fledgling reporter and reluctant obit writer. I got a kick out of his phone interview with a bereaved relative, as he asked for the name of the funeral home, the deceased's age and the cause of death. When he begged his editor to get him off obit duty and got his wish, I lost interest in the film.

Both Jeremy Piven in "Serendipity" and Jennifer Aniston in "Rumor Has It" are described as obit writers for the New York Times. Piven's character is shown as a reporter who writes obits, but I believe Aniston's character would actually be a person who takes obit info from funeral homes and families for the classified advertising department - basically, a clerk-typist, not a journalist.

Fictional obit writers usually are portrayed in movies (and in books, like Carl Hiaasen's "Basket Case" and Porter Shreve's "The Obituary Writer") as unfortunate souls who are stuck with the dirtiest job in the newsroom. The writers of these screenplays and books are using the term "obit writer" as a synonym for "loser." To them, the obit writer represents as person who is in a dead-end job, who yearns for some higher calling, who is ready for a change.

For some reporters, this may be true. To the public, this is probably the perception. But it's not always the case. Many of us regard our jobs as the best in the newsroom.

We love writing about the dead. We're not writing about death. We're writing about lives. (FYI: Many of us, who love what we do, will attend the 8th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Las Vegas, N.M., June 15-17. For details go to

What other movies, books, TV shows or whatever include obit-writing characters? How were they portrayed? What did you think about them?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Great corrections?

Adam Bernstein and I are collecting corrections - Sergava, Ritter, etc. Anybody got a list or recall particularly piquant ones?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bentsen ledes: pukey!

I really don't like the ledes on the Bentsen obits. (I didn't write one, incidentally, so I am just complaining.) Everybody focuses on his dressing down of Sen. Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy" - but the really pukey ones do it right in the first graf, and the pukiest in the headline.

To me this is the ascendency of image over reality, style over substance. If we are the first draft of history, then the first draft is going to be savagely rewritten because summing up Bentsen's career - and I carry no brief for him - with this one quote is like summing up Churchill's with that old chestnut (told so many ways I suspect it never happened) "Bessie, you're ugly. And tomorrow morning I will be sober.""

Back to Bentsen's line - let's not forget that it was ineffective politically. The Bush 88 ticket was elected in a landslide, although of course Quayle was ever after considered a political lightweight. (Bentsen did not start this - his doubtless carefully rehearsed mot merely put an exclamation point after.) So all this, in the end, was a mere entertainment, a sideshow to both the furtherance of the Bush dynasty and to the career of somebody who had a substantial 20+ year career in government at the highest levels.

Here's LAT:

Lloyd Bentsen, 85; U.S. Senator Zinged Quayle in '88 VP Debate
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Bentsen, the former four-term U.S. senator from Texas who was the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee and served as President Clinton's first secretary of the Treasury, died Tuesday. He was 85.

This is unfair to McLellan, who doesn't mention the quote til graf 5 - it's the anonymous headline writer who is to blame.

Here's WaPo's Joe Holly, where the hed is at least OK, but Holly has succumbed to rhetorical overkill and news judgment underkill:

Lloyd Bentsen; Texas Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate
By Joe Holley

Lloyd Bentsen was a U.S. senator and a Treasury secretary, but the Texas Democrat will always be remembered for a polemical flick of steel that drew blood in a 1988 vice presidential debate.


Here's AP, atop a 1200-word quote-fest (Prez: "Lloyd Bentsen was a man of great honor and distinction." (yawn))

Former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85
By WENDY BENJAMINSON, Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON - Former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly Texan who as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 1988 famously told rival Dan Quayle he was "no Jack Kennedy," died Tuesday. He was 85.

Etc etc. Honorable mentions to the NYTimes David Rosenbaum (incidentally, another dead NYTimes obituarist with a byline, fast becoming their specialty) and the Telegraph's anonymous obituarist, both of whom at least saved the obligatory quote for graf 2.

Conclusion: I'm really happy I didn't have to write this one. I probably would have put the damn quote up too high for my own liking. And here is the possible riposte to my kvetch-o-gram: maybe there wasn't much there there anyway.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

More on military "heroes"

This one's still alive.
As I recall this was a big topic at the obituary writers' confab in 2004.
Story from Atlanta Journal Constitution

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Obits can get political, says Chris Reed


Obits can get political too. See how my obit on Abe Rosenthal was used in a devastating rebuttal to the "P.T. Barnum" of neo-liberalism, the New York Times's Thomas Friedman's absurd claim that the late Abe did not influence his correspondents' political reporting.

Of the Big Three (WP, NYT, LAT), not one mentioned Ray Bonner's superb reporting from El Salvador, for which Abe cravenly humiliated and demoted him. The NYT now looks stupid for not doing so.

Lesson: Obits are political too.


To read Alexander Cockburn's lead piece of May 15 - which includes an excerpt from Chris Reed's story, go to and scroll down a little

And read Chris Reed's Rosenthal obituary from The Guardian of London.

You should be able to find the New York Times' Rosenthal obituary and Friedman's Rosenthal reflections at, but you have to be a subscriber. You also could go to your library or your newspaper's electronic library.

As an alternative, read Stephen Miller's Rosenthal obit in the New York Sun.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Time runs out for Aussie 60 Minutes reporter

The following obit comes from our own wizard of Oz, Nigel Starck, offshore program director of the School of Communication at University of South Australia.

Richard Carleton
60 Minutes reporter, Australia
(born New South Wales 24 February 1943; died Tasmania 7 May 2006)

Richard Carleton fired off his typically hostile question, shuffled away from the media scrum at a Tasmanian mine where two men were trapped underground, collapsed, and died of heart failure. That heart had twice endured by-pass surgery; each operation was the subject of a 60 Minutes report fronted, naturally, by the patient.

Carleton, 63, brought individuality, eccentricity, and a touch of arrogance to the process of news gathering, blurring the line between journalism and entertainment, on the principle that a story is not a story if nobody sees it. In the earlier stages of his 40-year television career, he was slender and darkly sideburned, challenging Australia’s political leaders with an incisive line of questioning. He soon won a reputation as the press corps man who had the nerve to raise the offensive, the embarrassing and the infuriating probes that nobody else dared to ask.

Perhaps his most famous moment came in a 1983 encounter with the labor leader Bob Hawke, who was running for prime minister. Hawke had just beaten a decent, diligent but dull political colleague for the nomination – and then he faced Carleton, live on national television. Carleton’s first question rattled the loquacious, nail-hard Hawke. “Could I ask you,” he spat, “whether you feel a little embarrassed tonight at the blood that's on your hands?”

For 60 Minutes, he reported from all the hot spots: Kabul, Bosnia, Jerusalem, Chernobyl, Baghdad, and East Timor. The East Timor report, on an independence referendum, led to an episode – 16 years after the Hawke clash – that might have caused Carleton himself some embarrassment. He was deported by the authorities, for pestering voters at a polling station. After this forced departure, the local police found that Carleton’s hotel room was stocked with gourmet cheeses, caviar, smoked mussels, aparagus spears and quince jams. Rival reporters gleefully filed colour stories on the discovery, for Carleton was not universally loved. Indeed, he had been known to scream abuse at his own camera crews and line producers.

In later life, he became jowly in appearance and pontificating in manner. He would ask long questions in a fruity adversarial quizzing, peering over reading glasses at his interviewees. This interrogation would be spiced too by great slabs of silence, as Carleton waited for the ultimate confession. One television critic found that Carleton “looked at interviewees as if they were pieces of diseased tissue floating in formaldehyde”.

Away from television, he loved fly-fishing in the mountains. He was also an accomplished magician, travelling as far as Florida to learn new sleight-of-hand artistry at an illusionists’ convention. Richard Carleton had a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and a son from his second. He won three ‘Reporter of the Year’ awards.

Even in death, this veteran of Australian television made it to air-time as scheduled. His report, on the Tasmanian mine cave-in, was cobbled together by the production unit and broadcast on the evening of the day that he died. The 60 Minutes watch had stopped on the reporter with the piranha smile.

- Nigel Starck
(with file material from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald)

AsiaMedia obit for Richard Carleton

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Oxymoronic? Or business as usual?

Patricia Sullivan wrote an obit that ran in the Washington Post May 7, 2006, for Herbert Burkholz, a mystery novelist who briefly was a speechwriter at the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s.

Sullivan doesn't tell readers, "Isn't it ironic, dontcha think?" She deftly presents the facts of Burkholz' life so that additional commentary isn't necessary.

She writes: Burkholz wrote 10 novels and two nonfiction books, including "The FDA Follies" (1994), an attack on the FDA in the Reagan era that grew out of a series of health-related articles he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.

After the book was published, Burkholz was hired to write speeches for David Kessler, FDA commissioner in the Clinton administration.

The titles of Burkholz' commercially successfuly mysteries and a series that included "The Sensitives" (1987), "Strange Bedfellows" (1988) and "Brain Damage" (1992) add to the weirdness of it all.

It makes you wonder where our government officials find their speechwriters and what their motives are.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Perfume obituaries

An email I received over the weekend from someone called Carolyn (not our one):

"I am looking for information on obits of people connected to the perfume industry, including perfumers (who until very recently were not visibly promoted by the oil companies). and others who were part of developing the perfume industry (like Baron Walter Langer of White Shoulder fame).

I am a retired senior exploring a subject that is dear to my heart - the history of perfumery.

I need to know where to look online and how to "ask " for it.

I know I can go to the local library and check their newpaper resources."

I could only suggest newspaper websites. Can anyone help her with more? You can email her at

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Obituary writing tips

The May 2006 edition of Quill, the Society of Professional Journalists' monthly magazine, features some tips for writing obituaries. The title is Beat Guide: Obituaries.

The chief reason I know about this is that I wrote it. Joe Skeel, Quill Magazine editor, asked me and several other reporters to share tips for covering their beats. My beat, of course, is the death beat.

I'm sure this won't help my fellow obit writers much. It's aimed at those journalists who haven't written much about the dead. And my space was limited.

I know I didn't cover everything. What other tips would you have for fledgling obituary writers?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Write after death

Robert Ballantyne, who calls himself a "popjournalist," put together a short radio documentary called "Write After Death" for CKLN in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

It's a nifty mix of comments from Cathy Dunphy of the Toronto Star, Steve Miller of the New York Sun and me (Alana Baranick of Cleveland's Plain Dealer), intermingled with theme music from HBO's "Six Feet Under" and other bits of sound, including part of John Travolta's opening scene from the movie "Perfect."

Well done, Robert!

Click the title above to get connected to the audio and, at some point, to what should be a longer written version of Ballantyne's look at obituaries and obit writers.