Monday, March 27, 2006

John Doe died. No, really. That's his real name.

Obituary writers love to do obits for people with names to die for.

I know I got excited years ago when I did an obit for Happy Laffin, who had a service station called "Laffin Gas" and a wife who went by her initials - "I.M." - so when people called her name, they'd have to say, "I. M. Laffin."

Kay Powell hit the jackpot last week, when John Doe met his maker during her watch at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And she made the most of it.

In the obituary for the real John Doe that ran in the AJC on March 25, 2006, Kay wrote: For most of his 92 years, he had to show his marriage license or his driver's license to prove to suspicious hotel clerks and doubting hospital personnel that he really was John Doe.

She included intriguing statistics: In Georgia, 125 John Does have died since 1970, according to an AJC analysis of death records on file with the state Department of Human Resources. Those records do not indicate who died unidentified and who was actually named John Doe.

She threw in a nifty tidbit that never would have occurred to me: He was rarely sick, but when he did have to go to the hospital, medical personnel were constantly dropping by his room to check his identity in case he was a famous person seeking anonymity.

Great job, Kay. Does anyone else have a cool story to share about names?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Old one

Obituary of playwright Channing Pollock, Aug. 18, 1946, no byline

"Although he said that he never had enough of lobster, his wife's society or leisure, he did not come by idleness easily."

It's better written than all but the pinnacle of today's obits.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The "You Died" Blog

Someone commented on our blog posting about Marilyn Johnson's recent segment on NPR. I say "someone" because that's the name the person signed.

A quick click of the name led to another blog: "You Died."

It's a place for posting your own obit. It appears to be a relatively new blog site. The auto-obituaries range from touching to amusing to bizarre. Check it out.

Oh, and thanks, Someone. We appreciate your plugging our blogs, our Web sites and our books. Question for you: Do we know you?

Album cover

Claire Martin says this record album is meant to be framed & hung on an obit writer's wall.

It's from the Museum of Bad Album Covers.

Monday, March 13, 2006

From a certain point of view

Joe Simnacher of the Dallas Morning News and I (Alana Baranick of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio) wrote obits from opposite perspectives about the same man.

Joe's obit, which ran March 10, 2006, carries this headline: William H. Bricker: Brought Diamond Shamrock to Dallas - which was a positive for Texas.

The problem for my readers in Cleveland is that Bricker "brought" the oil/energy/chemicals corporation's headquarters to Dallas from Cleveland. So the headline for the Cleveland obit of March 13, 2006, is: William Bricker, led Shamrock to Dallas, LTV in bankruptcy.

That "LTV" thing cemented the man's unfavorable reputation in my neck of the woods. You'll have to read the entire story to understand why Clevelanders didn't like him much.

I'm not opposed to writing negative things about the deceased, but I do not relish doing it. Sometimes there's no way to avoid it. These are news stories, after all.

Both obits are worth reading and comparing.

I can't say that Joe wrote a eulogy for the man, but he did include some comments from the family emphasizing his good points. And that's understandable.

Hats off to Joe for working in a most unusual anecdote! How many places will you read about semen from a prized bull, oil-drilling and Indonesia in a single paragraph? Only in the obits!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Marilyn Johnson's media blitz

Our own Marilyn Johnson has been getting an amazing amount of big-time media attention for her book, "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries."

In case you don't know, her book is about, well, us. Obit writers. Fobits, a.k.a. Friends of Obits. And obits of all sorts. Many of us are mentioned by name.

I won't go into great detail on the newspapers, magazines, radio and television views and reviews of Marilyn's book. There's just too many.

But here are some of the more prominent publications that are telling the world about Marilyn, her book and those of us fortunate enough to have been mentioned by her: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, People magazine, Parade magazine and Publisher's Weekly. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today are among the newspapers that are expected to print something about the book in the near future.

Her interviews include National Public Radio's "On The Media" (March 11 & 12) and "Morning Edition" (Renee Montagne, sometime this week).

Marilyn's appearance with Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post at Borders in Washington, D.C., Wednesday (March 15), will be taped for CSPAN2's BookTV. Check the BookTV Web site to find out when it will air.

Visit Marilyn's Web site to learn more about her book tour and other media exposure.

Nice going, Marilyn. We're proud of you and grateful for the spotlight you are shining on the obit world.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

obituary forum

obituary forum The Daily Telegraph obituary on John Profumo, I'm assuming it's Andrew's, is my early nominee for best obituary of the year. It's at once touching and fascinating. A must read.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What ails the American obit

This is from an obit of Luna Leopold in LAT by Elaine Woo:

From a LAT obit of Luna Leopold, hydrologist, by Elaine Woo:

“How does water move and when it moves, what happens? How does land shape water flow and how does water flow shape land? These are among the central issues that Luna solved,” said Char Miller, an environmental historian at Trinity University in San Antonio.

The problem here is that the obit writer, by the time she writes this, should consider herself enough of an expert to tell the reader exactly what Leopold's contributions were. The thing to do is interview the expert and then don't quote him. Quoting, to my mind, makes the statement less credible not more. It distracts and takes accountability away from the reporter, who should crave it.

Nothing against Elaine Woo, who I think is very good. I just hate the general tendency to avoid asserting anything as a fact. I consider this to be a form of bureaucratic obfuscation. American journalism is rife with it, and it is tedious and irritating.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Crossword death notice

Here's a curiosity from the death notices in today's NYTimes:

March 2, 2006 Thursday
Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section B; Column 1; Classified; Pg. 7

LENGTH: 199 words

HEADLINE: Paid Notice: Deaths


JONES -- Alberta Conway Jones. Age 87, passed away on February 27, 2006,
at her Stamford home.

blah blah blah

She loved sports, and was devoted to the opera and the NY Times crossword puzzle.


This rang a bell, so I nexis-ed mentions of the crossword in NYT death notices - 94 mentions since 1997! Most of them specifying New York Times crossword puzzles!

Here are some random comparisons:

Games: 264
Baseball: 179
Racing: 115
Squash: 44
Squash racquets: 14 (good joke if you happen to play)
Cricket: 12
Stamp collecting (or collector): 11
Parachute or parachuting: 9
Badminton: 6
Ephemera: 3
Sodoku: 0