Notes from the 10th Great Obituary Writers Conference
The assemblage was somewhat smaller in numbers than in some recent years. It was hard to keep count, however the official attendance roster showed 15 official registrants. There were a few more who had not probably not officially registered. I think those were spouses, significant others, etc. who mostly did not sit in on many of the sessions. Though lacking in size this was a group that quickly bonded into a common purpose, consideration of the art of the obituary.
Aside from many familiar faces from past conferences, the Tenth Great attracted several new folks with interesting backgrounds and purposes. There were two film makers from the U.K. who are looking into bringing Marilyn Johnson's delightful "The Dead Beat" to the screen. A professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented a challenging, discussion provoking paper on the ethical implications of obituaries for animals. A representative of a biographical research company in California added that perspective to our discussions. A young former public radio broadcaster, now a graduate student in creative nonfiction writing, educated us about the application of the latter craft to the obituarists' art.
I was personally pleased to meet a colleague from the librarian ranks, just recently retired from the science library at UC Berkeley. We library folk, though few in number, appreciate the importance of obits.
Some highlights from the formal presentations follow. On day one, Professor Jane Desmond made the aforementioned talk about obituaries for animals. I must say that this talk triggered one of the most lively, and at times emotional, discussions in my memory from the Great Obit Writers conferences. You just had to have been there. We all completed questionnaires for Dr. Desmond for her use in furthering her research efforts. It was good to see our old friend Trudi Hahn Pickett back at the conference table. Now relocated to New Mexico, Trudi formerly wrote obits in Minnesota and attended previous conferences before leaving the craft to marry and join her husband in the Southwest. Trudi presented a personal case study in the writing of a family composed obit, a news obituary, and a personal eulogy, all three involving the passing of her husband six months ago. Emotional though it was for all concerned, it was a remarkable sharing experience for us. Highlights from day two included a visit and presentation from Jim Sheeler our Pulitzer winning comrade from conferences past and member of the IAO Hall of Fame.
Jim began his presentation with selections from the Spoon River Anthology collection of epitaph/poems, brought to YouTube video by high school students and accompanied by tracks from alt-country singer Richard Buckner. Jim followed that with video highlights that accompanied his recent book "Final Salute" about his work with surviving families of soldiers fallen in the Afghan and Iraqi war zones. The final presentation, that being the award to the newest IAO Hall of Fame winner, was to have been made by Kay Powell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kay was stopped mid-way by IAO founder Carolyn Gilbert, who took over the floor to announce that Kay herself was the new inductee. Bravo! Congratulations to Kay!
Some bits 'n pieces to wrap up . . . as part of a response to the recent Boston Globe column about the IAO - SPOW split, Carolyn Gilbert verbally countered several of the claims presented in the piece. She also indicated that the annual calendar of the numbered Great Obituary Writers conferences may change somewhat so as not to come so near in time to the SPOW meetings.
Locations will likely continue to be in somewhat off the beaten path venues. Efforts remain underway to identify a location to place the archives of the IAO, which now fill five filing cabinets. We had somewhat of an echo of the famous Ronald Reagan death bulletin pandemonium when Jim Sheeler, arriving at the conference, brought the news flash about Tim Russert's sudden death. I announced the initiation of an "Obituaries in Education Interest Group" which will remain associated with the IAO and will serve as a link for folks who use obituaries in an educational setting. Please watch this blog and the IAO's Obitpage.com website for further information.
Wish you could have been there!