Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Reheat on gas mark six

"Vincent Canby couldn't accurately tell you that Bob Hope is dead, because he was dead."

Via the Editor's Weblog, there's a nice little story about pre-written obituaries over at E&P.

How many 'ready to goes' do you have?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Midlife crisis, mushrooms and more

How about this description of a midlife crisis in an obituary? (From the Telegraph)
Reid met his first wife, Pamela Saich, also a mycologist, on a fungus foray and they married in 1953. Their son, David, rebelled to the extent of becoming a malacologist rather than a mycologist.
Derek Reid always had a sense of fun, but during his early career he was shy, studious and bald. His forties, however, coincided with the permissive Seventies, and he celebrated with the adoption of a luxuriant wig, a collection of 200 dazzling ties and an exuberant manner to match. His marriage did not survive this transformation.
He married his second wife, Sheila Glover, who also worked at Kew, in 1987, the year he retired.
obituary forum

Friday, January 27, 2006

"The Secret of the Self"

A retired diocesan priest friend and reader of mine, Father Lawrence Saalfeld of Milwaukie, Ore., pointed out the following article from the December issue of the magazine First Things to me. It is a reflection on obituaries. I enjoyed it very much and would like to recommend it.

Here are some quotes from it:

"An obituary always falls short of what we would like it to be---and yet, it is better than nothing. When we write one, we believe we are remembering something discrete and doing something more than recording a list of items on a curriculum vitae. We are, in some sense, striving for a God's eye view; not just people in their distilled essence, both as they were known and as they knew, or tried to know themsleves. We are attempting to represent a soul, something whose nature is greater and deeper than any particular instance can adequately show."

"Our age, of course, prefers to speak of selves. "Souls" seems a term too laden with metaphysical implications to pass through customs. But it is striking to note how poorly the word "self" even though it is one of the cardinal terms of our discourse serves us as a marker for that thread of essential continuity in the individual life that we acknowledge and commemorate in the obituary. An obituary is not, or not only, about a self" .........


Obit Index Premieres in Pa.

To celebrate the launch of an online obituary index, the Butler Area Public Library in Butler, Pa., is throwing a Grim Reaper Party. Guests are invited to wear funeral attire and munch on coffin-shaped cakes.

The index, which contains 72,000 death records culled from Butler County newspapers from 1818 to 2000, was compiled by volunteers from Slippery Rock University's School of Computer Science. Once complete, patrons will be able to look up deceased people by first, middle or last name and retrieve records by newspaper or publication date.

To paraphrase one of my favorite catch phrases: "People may die, but their obituaries last forever."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fun Stuff

I want to draw attention to two obits: Adam Bernstein's WaPo obit of Ralph Nader's mother, a gem of the shorter form, and the Telegraph's obit of its eccentric columnist, Michael Wharton, which imho is about as good as it gets in obitland.



Theatrical Tributes

The people who work at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, Texas, are never forgotten.

Back in the late 1980s, employees at the opera house began a tradition to honor their colleagues' passings. Now whenever a co-worker dies, the other employees put together a personalized memorial and place it in the rafters above the auditorium. Each container includes items that depict who that person was, as well as the person's obituary.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Friday, January 13, 2006

The First Rule of Obit Writing

Rule No. 1: Make sure they're dead.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier printed a story on Jan. 4, 2006, about a police report that a local teenager, whose paid obituary had been published in the paper, was seen having a burger at a Happy Chef restaurant a week after his reported demise.

"We have confirmed [the teen] is not deceased," [the police captain] said. "He is alive and well and breathing."

Unfortunately, the people responsible for printing the obit did not confirm that the kid wasn't breathing.

The obit, which had been dropped off at the paper for publication by - depending on which report you read - the teen's father, stepfather or mother's boyfriend, failed to list a funeral home. It gave an incorrect name for the local cemetery where the kid was supposed to have been buried and, shocker of all shockers, directed that memorial donations be made to the family.

The follow-up story on Jan. 5 says that police are investigating the fake memorial donations.

The teen's mom explains that it's all a matter of miscommunication. She says she was joking when she told her husband/boyfriend that her child had died. Her man took it upon himself to place the obit, which conveniently asked for money to be sent to the supposedly grieving mom.

This feels wrong on so many levels. but I'll limit my observations to the placement of the obit.

Because of the false obituary, the Courier will now require that any death notice or obituary submitted directly by a family member or friend to be verified with official documentation or the name of a funeral home or organization responsible for the services, the story says. Neither the death notice nor the obituary will be published until that information has been provided, under the policy.

This proof-of-death policy should be the rule at every newspaper.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Obituary headline: Late in life, a writer was born

As soon as I saw the headline - Late in life, a writer was born - on the news page (not just the obit page) of the Jan. 6, 2006, online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I knew it was an obit and suspected it was written by Amy Rabideau Silvers. I was right.

Amy wrote the obit for LaVerne Hammond, who started writing a seniors column for the St. Petersburg Times when she was 86. It wasn't like Hammond had been a freelance writer or a type of Lois Lane in her younger days. This was Hammond's first fling with such writing.

I love the way Amy used Hammond's changing career goals to chronicle her life. Hammond, who died at age 92, encountered obstacles to her various aspirations. She was either too young, too old or too female.

Hammond had a blast doing her column. Amy shared some of Hammond's experiences as a columnist, including the time she attended Harley-Davidson's 100th birthday bash:

"The bikers invited us to see their bikes up close and personal," she [Hammond] wrote. "One was truly an artistic expression on wheels. . . . I stood there admiring every detail.

"Suddenly, the man said to me, 'Would you like to go for a ride?' "

She loved her ride on the Harley.

"I gave my driver a hug and told my newfound friend that the rev of a motorcycle will now always remind me of a warm, beating heart," she wrote.

As a bonus, Amy included a link to some of Hammond's columns. You'll have to look up Hammond's obit to find it. (In case you don't know, you can get to the obit by clicking LaVerne Hammond's name above.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Dick Clark yet lives. Bandstand dancer doesn't.

On Jan. 1, 2006, newspapers across America (and possibly elsewhere) gave reports of Dick Clark's appearance on his annual televised New Year's Eve program.

His having missed the previous "Rockin' New Year's Eve" after suffering a stroke generated the special media attention. (In case you didn't read about it or see America's oldest teenager on TV, he's looking pretty good, but his speech is somewhat distorted and he can't walk without help yet.)

On Jan. 2, 2006, Claire Martin wrote an obit for Alan Levin, a 60-year-old man who used to dance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

Claire got some cool comments through her interviews with his friends, starting with: Alan I. Levin, who died of brain cancer Dec. 25 at age 60, jitterbugged alongside other south Philadelphia teen idols on the early days of "American Bandstand" and never lost the kinetic animation that led one friend to characterize him as "a party on feet."

She worked in that he was one of United Airlines' first male flight attendants, which back in the day would have suggested that although he danced with girls, he might not be attracted to them. She confirmed readers' suspicions of his sexual orientation by throwing in a quote from Levin's life partner, Don Hughes.

Reading the obit made me nostalgic. It made me realize that I have forgotten much of what I thought was paramount in my youth. It also made me realize that my recollections of American Bandstand would not be the same as folks who grew up under Dick Clark's influence in other generations.

I faithfully watched Bandstand in the 1950s, when it was in its infancy and I was in elementary school. Back then I could have identified about a dozen Philadelphia teenagers, who danced on the show. I can still see their faces, but I can't recall their names.

I tried to place Alan Levin, but couldn't. Then I realized, he wouldn't have been old enough to be a dancer during the time that Bandstand dominated my life. Rock and roll music, performers and Rate-the-Record still held my attention, but I no longer cared about the dancers.

I remember late in 1963, when Clark introduced a song on Rate-the-Record that didn't seem to impress the teenagers who rated it on the show as much as it impressed me. It was "She Loves You" by The Beatles. Several weeks later, the song and the Fab Four topped the Bandstand Top Ten.

Do you have any Bandstand memories to share? Do you remember the names of other dancers or know what happened to them?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bloggess of Death on BBC Radio

And yet another end-of-the-year national radio broadcast featuring an obituarist.

Jade Walker, an independent obituary writer whose post-mortem profiles can be found on The Blog of Death, was on the BBC radio program, Brief Lives.

Apparently, this is a regularly broadcast obituary program. Perhaps our friends from across the pond could enlighten us on this.

The program is an hour long. The first 49 minutes features a panel discussion of prominent deaths of 2005, including the Pope, Richard Pryor, Luther Vandross and actor John Mills.

And then - Ta Da! - the interview with Jade. Learn about how she came to be the bloggess of death. And listen to her stories about some really cool people, who happen to be dead. Well done, Jade!

You can fast-forward to Jade's segment, but the entire show (with the exception of the sports news) is worth listening to, if you have time.