Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Another fraudulent obit

This has come up before - the idea of publishing a fraudulent obit to mislead creditors or whatever. Usually it is one's own obit and not somebody else's though.

Woman says fake obituary intended to keep creditors at bay

The Post and Courier
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A North Charleston woman who claimed to be the mother of a female Air Force officer killed in Iraq conceded Tuesday the officer doesn't exist.

Melanie Grant, 39, said she thought she could buy time with creditors if she told them her daughter had died. A paid obituary published Thursday and Friday in The Post and Courier stated Lt. Melissa Hope Grant, 24, died May 11 in Iraq.

"I just made it up. Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking," a tearful Melanie Grant said.

A photograph accompanied the obituary. Grant said she tore the photo from the pages of a bridal magazine.

Full obituaries and funeral notices are arranged through the newspaper's classified ad department. The Grant obituary was sent in from Suburban Funeral Home. The newspaper bills the funeral home, in this case $242.77, and the funeral home passes the cost on to the family.

Skip Mikell, executive vice president and general manager of Suburban Funeral Home, said he never suspected anything unusual about the "death."

Two women who identified themselves as aunts of the "deceased" sat in the funeral home's family room May 14 and gave Mikell basic information, he said. Grant said Tuesday that neither woman is a relative, but one is a longtime friend.

Though Mikell never met Grant, he said she called him last week. She told him she had to travel to a military base to pick up paperwork, which she would deliver to him Friday. Mikell said he became suspicious when Grant never showed. On Monday, he contacted a U.S. Department of Defense casualty officer who said she'd check all branches of the military for a Lt. Melissa Hope Grant. Mikell was still waiting Tuesday afternoon for word from Defense.

Grant said she got scared after the obituary was published.

Readers began posting online messages in the guest book for Lt. Melissa Hope Grant the day the obituary appeared, although most said they didn't know the woman or the family. Like many, Robbie Bray, chaplain of the Tri-County Blue Star Mother's Chapter of Charleston, expressed sympathy for the family and gratefulness for the woman's service to her country.

Bray's sadness turned to shock Tuesday when told there was no Lt. Melissa Hope Grant.

"What? Oh my gosh, why? Oh my goodness gracious. Oh my gosh, that is awful. My heavens. What a misrepresentation," Bray said.

Grant said she decided to come clean when questioned Tuesday by a Post and Courier reporter. She said she lives on disability on a fixed income and is raising two grandchildren and one stepgrandchild.

The idea of creating a death "just came in my head," as a way to get creditors to give her some space, she said.

Grant's criminal history obtained through the State Law Enforcement Division showed 15 variations on her name and several old convictions on loitering for the purpose of prostitution. The majority of her arrests were in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a pending fraudulent check charge from February.

Grant acknowledged Tuesday that she'd been arrested before, but said she'd worked hard to clean up her life. She said she's embarrassed that she duped so many people.

"It just wasn't worth it," she said.

Mikell said he'll consider the experience a lesson learned, and the funeral home will not try to collect the cost of the obituaries from Grant, who is already "ducking" creditors, he said.

Reach Nita Birmingham at 937-5433 or

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Researcher asks questions about obits

Kate Sweeney, a North Carolina-based writer, is putting together a book about "our changing ways of remembering our dead in this country, everything from green burial to online urn retailers, to, of course, obituaries."

She slipped a comment with questions into the last blog posting that merits a broader audience.

Kate writes: Have the number of papers that print "every-day Joe" obits in recent years, grown? (Those being, of course, obits not about famous people.)

Does anyone have any figures on this? Newspapers that have added the Everyman Obit?

Secondly, I'm also looking for hard evidence of whether the obituary's grown in popularity, period, in recent years.

Got any answers or comments for her?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

SPOW in the news

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards and the recent obit writers workshop in Portland, Ore., are getting some media attention.

The Philadelphia Daily News ran a story on May 15, 2008, titled Former DN obit writer Nicholson wins life honor about DN (Daily News, not Death Notice) retiree Jim Nicholson receiving SPOW's first Lifetime Achievement Award in Obituary Writing.

Nicholson says of the photo that ran with the story, "I think they used my high school prom pic, but that's OK."

To see a more recent Nicholson mug, go to the SPOW Awards page.

Adam Bernstein gave a workshop report titled "Conference of Death" on the Washington Post's Post Mortem blog on May 14, 2008.

The blog provides a link to Adam's article titled Death Beat: the Art of Advanced Obituaries which was posted in Global Journalist on Feb. 12, 2008.

Joe Strupp told Editor and Publisher readers about who won SPOW Awards in his May 14, 2008, article: Obit Writer Awards Honor 'AJC' and Toronto's 'Globe and Mail.'

Tim Bullamore got some press coverage in the U.K. in the Bath Chronicle - OBITUARY WRITER SCOOPS INTERNATIONAL AWARD - and the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society for receiving SPOW honors.

Do you know of other published accounts of the awards and/or the workshop?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jobs on the Death Beat

Obituaries Editor - The Washington Post - The Obituaries Editor, while reporting and writing obits, supervises a team of experienced reporters. The duties include assigning and editing stories, scheduling, doing staff evaluations, and coordinating with the News Desk, the Metro Copy Desk, other sections, the Photo Desk and WPNI editors. Previous editing experience is preferred but not a prerequisite. Our policy on obits makes The Post unique in the industry. In addition to reporting on the deaths of the well-known, we will do an obituary on anyone who has lived a substantial portion of his or her life in the Washington region. Obituaries are the news stories that bring The Post into the most intimate contact with its readers. We are looking for someone with an editor's eye and a reporter's zest, someone who can move the paper further along in its quest to deliver the best news obituaries anywhere. FMI: click here. (Note: This position will likely be filled internally.)

Obit Clerk/Typist - The Poughkeepsie Journal - The Poughkeepsie Journal Classified advertising department has an immediate opening for an organized, detail oriented individual. Responsibilities include typing obituaries, wedding, engagement and anniversary announcements. Additional duties include daily input of legal notices, employment line ads as well as inputting customer ads into the information system. This is a 30 hour per week position with a somewhat flexible schedule; evenings, weekends and holidays hours required. Excellent benefits, including 401(k) Savings Plan. FMI: click here.

Obituary Clerk/Typist - The Observer-Dispatch - Responsible for typing obituaries into the system, working with funeral directors to proof obits and price out. Part-time; 15 hours per week. Fri. 4:30pm-8pm, Sat. 1pm-8pm, Sun. 5pm-8pm or until job is done. Must have a working knowledge of computers and excellent typing skills. FMI: click here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

People's Picks

Although it did not count toward the final tallies for official winners in the Society of Professional Obituary Writers 2008 Awards, more than 100 individuals voted for their favorites in several categories in SPOW's online "People's Picks" popularity poll.

The following obit writers receive bragging rights from their adoring public:

Gerry Hostetler: Best tribute, memoir, column or retrospective piece (800 words and under) for her column about the death of a female impersonator titled Clay and Tracy shared big heart, a gift for dance.

Daniel Asa Rose: Best tribute, memoir, column or retrospective piece (over 800 words) for Fare Thee Well, Ex-Father-In-Law

Gayle Ronan Sims: Best long-form obituary (over 800 words) about a celebrity or famous person for her obit of Marie Hicks, 83, the Rosa Parks of Girard College.

Gayle Ronan Sims again: Best long-form obituary (over 800 words) about an Average Joe or non- celebrity for her story, Michael and Ida Carrozza: 1908-2006: Sweethearts who died as they lived. Here's the jump page.

Gayle Ronan Sims, third one: Best multimedia presentation of an obit or life story, Master Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Formosa. See the previous blog posting - Best Multimedia Presentation of an Obit - for links.

Kay Powel: Best short-form obituary (800 words and under) about a celebrity or famous person: Arnold Hardy, 85, took Pulitzer-winning photo.

Kay Powell again: Best short-form obituary (800 words and under) about an Average Joe or non-celebrity: Thelma Hogan, 79, was restaurant fixture.

Kay Powell, third time: Best Body of Work. (See previous blog item - Best Body of Work - for links to stories.)

Kay Powell, four altogether: Lifetime Achievement. Read the nominating letter.

Thanks for voting, folks.

Jim Nicholson's "Acceptance Speech"

In a letter dated May 11, 2008, Jim Nicholson told the Society of Professional Obituary Writers:

I am deeply honored and humbled to have been selected to receive the first Lifetime Achievement Award of SPOW. Thank you.

On a very personal level it represents a final – and official - vindication.

Nearly 26 years ago when I began this new (the first obit page of any kind for the paper) obituary page for the Philadelphia Daily News, my column had the support of Assistant Managing Editor Tom Livingston, the original sponsor who thought we could not be a full service newspaper without an obit page, and Zack Stalberg, Editor of the Daily News.

Aside from them, in those early days, there were few supporters or fans in my own newsroom. The detractors were many, who viewed a 25-inch obit on a maintenance worker as a ludicrous waste of space.

We can all remember when the obituary writing job was reserved for old-timers spooling out their line, youngsters who needed to practice taking information error-free and others who were consigned by management to a short-term punishment or a long-term exile.

How the world of obit writing – and how the world perceives it - has changed in a quarter century. And each of you, individually, changed it because of who you are and how well you do what you do.

Never could I have imagined living to see the day when the craft of obituary writing would be so over-flowing with talent. Men and woman in a steep ascendancy as writers and reporters, indeed, many at an apex, choosing to be obituary writers. The roster of talent writing obits today defies logic.

No award in life ever means more than one which comes from a jury of one’s peers. And what peers!!

Thank you again. I remain,
Your Obedient Servant,
Jim Nicholson

Nicholson has accepted an invitation to speak at the Society of Professional Obituary Writers Convention that will be held April 23-25, 2009, in Charlotte, N.C.

SPOW's First Lifetime Achievement Award

Jim Nicholson, retired Philadelphia Daily News obituary writer, is the recipient of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers first Lifetime Achievement Award.

In her letter nominating Jim for this honor, Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat, said: His 19 years of obituaries for the Daily News, an estimated 20,000 of them, laid waste to the presumption that most lives are ordinary.

Before Nicholson, there were people important enough to note in passing, and those who weren’t; after Nicholson, if the subject of an obituary seemed ordinary, it was because the reporter had not dug deep enough.

Nicholson’s campaign to dignify every subject with his laser-beam attention – and the delicacy and generosity with which he wrote about their flawed lives-- was an innovation and a tremendous success. It immediately gave the Daily News an authentic voice in the local community and a standing in the national one.

Nicholson and the paper were honored early on by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the idea of using the obit page to tell life stories spread. Nicholson became something of an evangelist on this subject; he used to send out “obit kits” with samples and lists of questions and tips on resources.

His influence, eight years after his retirement, can be seen today on the obit pages of newspapers in the U.S. and beyond, embracing writers, editors, readers, funeral directors, and survivors.

The chapter I wrote about him for The Dead Beat makes a lengthier case for his influence.

I’ve attached a few of his obituaries from the Daily News archives, which demonstrate his skill, originality, and uncanny knack for (as one of his fellow obit writers put it) leaving the ground and taking off into the stratosphere.

Read some examples of his work here.

Best Body of Work

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers 2008 Award for Best Body of Work - which is the top SPOW Award for obits written in 2007 - is shared by Tom Hawthorn, a freelance writer from British Columbia, and Kay Powell, a staff obit writer from Georgia.

We've provided some biographical information on both winners in previous blog postings. Both have won SPOW Awards in other categories.

Here are the obits that swayed the judges:

Five of Tom Hawthorn's obits published in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail:

1. Jack Winter

2.Roy Borthwick

3. Mickey Rutner

4. James Barber

5. Don Leslie

Five of Kay Powell's obits published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

1. Valerie Daniel

2. Tillie Wood

3. Claude Miller

4. Boyzie Daniels

5. Arnold Hardy

Best Multimedia Presentation of an Obit

Gayle Ronan Sims of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has given workshop presentations on how to use audio, video, slideshows, etc., to enhance an obituary, has won the Society of Professional Obituary Writers 2008 Award for Best multimedia presentation of an obit or life story.

Her winning entry about Master Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Formosa included:
1. The obituary and its jump page;
2. A photo slide show accompanied by the voices of Formosa's wife and a fellow Marine;
3. A Marine Corps training video in which Formosa was the instructor.

Gayle Ronan Sims has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She worked at the Denver Post for 12 years as news editor, features editor and editor of the Sunday lifestyle magazine.

She has been with The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1987. Gayle has been a news editor, a features editor, graphics editor and chief obituary writer for six years.

She is making the big push to awaken the online giant in the obituary section of The Inquirer.

Best tribute/memoir/column or retrospective - long and short

Writers for Obit Magazine won Society of Professional Obituary Writer Awards in Categories #5 (long-form) and #6 (short-form) for Best tribute, memoir, column or retrospective piece.

Daniel Asa Rose won for the long-form tribute/memoir with Fare Thee Well, Ex-Father-In-Law, which draws readers immediately with the sentence: Just because you break up with a woman is no reason to break up with her Dad.

Judy Bachrach took short-form memoir honors with her Remembering Ruth Graham, in which she talks about interviewing the wife of legendary evangelist Billy Graham.

Judy ended the piece with a Ruth Graham quote from Patricia Cornwell's biography of Ruth (Ruth: A Portrait), in which she expressed sincere regrets about marrying the evangelist in 1943.

"After the joy and satisfaction of knowing that I am his by rights and his forever, I will slip into the background," Ruth wrote long ago in her journal. "In short, be a lost life. Lost in Bill's."

Judy Bachrach is a frequent contributor to Obit. She is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has previously written for the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Star.

She is the author of Tina and Harry Come to America: Tina Brown, Harry Evans, and the Uses of Power (Free Press, 2001).

Daniel Asa Rose is the editor of the international literary magazine THE READING ROOM and a regular book reviewer for The New York Observer and New York Magazine. He has served as arts & culture editor of the Forward newspaper, travel columnist for Esquire magazine, humor writer for GQ, essayist for The New York Times Magazine, and food critic for the past 20 pounds.

Read his other work at

Best Short-Form obit about an Average Joe

Carol Smith of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer won the Society of Professional Obituary Writers 2008 Award in Category #4: Best short-form obituary (800 words and under) about an Average Joe or non- celebrity with her story, Dying vet planned a final mission.

It's the story of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Lutz, a former Air Commando pilot, who with less than 72 hours to live orchestrated a plan from his hospital bed that allowed him to take a final flight.

Carol told us: After this story ran, I heard from readers around the country who were moved by this man's efforts to accomplish his final wish against the odds. I think the response reflects a universal desire we have to meet fate on our own terms.

Carol Smith is an enterprise reporter and narrative writing coach for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where she has covered a variety of beats, including science, medicine, and the working poor since 1997.

She is also a frequent obit-writer for the paper, where she also helped launch the paper's "People" team to get more profiles, obits and narrative stories about extraordinary "ordinary" people in the paper.

The PEN USA Literary Foundation, the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, Best of the West and others, have recognized her work nationally and regionally. She has also been recognized for her investigative work, and was a co-finalist for Harvard University's Goldsmith Prize in Investigative Journalism.

Her work was a 2006 finalist for the PEN Literary awards, and was also included in "The Best Creative Nonfiction," published June, 2007, by W. W. Norton & Company.

Prior to joining the Seattle P-I, Smith freelanced for the Los Angeles Times, Redbook magazine and other publications.

Best Short-Form Obit about a Celebrity

The competition for the Society of Professional Obituary Writers Award in Category #3: Best short-form obituary (800 words and under) about a celebrity or famous person resulted in a tie between two American obit writers from the same paper.

Holly Crenshaw wrote the SPOW Award winning obit, Margaret Anne Barnes, 'Murder in Coweta' author, for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Holly shares the award with Kay Powell and Kay's obit for Arnold Hardy, 85, took Pulitzer-winning photo.

Holly Crenshaw has worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1984 as a news researcher, local news reporter, arts writer, assistant editor and online producer. She has been writing obituaries for the AJC since 2005.

She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Memphis and a master's degree from Emory University.

Kay Powell has been writing obituaries for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1996.

Before joining the AJC in 1994 she was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, director of a community development program, self-employed seminar presenter, copy writer, accountant for Red Cross disasters, model and actor in industrial films and worked for the Georgia Public Service Commission.

When not being the Doyenne of the Death Beat, she plays bridge.

Best Long-Form Obit about an Average Joe

Tom Hawthorn wrote the winning obit in the Society of Professional Obituary Writers 2008 Awards Category #2: Best long-form (over 800 words) obituary about an Average Joe or non-celebrity.

His 'Tattooed king of the midway' was a tough act to swallow tells the story of Don Leslie, a carnival performer known for his "legendary finale" that "involved the insertion into his mouth of five long swords."

Tom writes that Leslie "eventually abandoned the stunt after an accident in Seattle in 1989 when he came within a razor's edge of becoming a living kebob."

When colleagues toasted Tom at the awards presentation in Portland, Ore., May 10, for winning the SPOW Award, Tom responded with a line from Leslie's obit: "Down the hatch without a scratch."

Tom Hawthorn is an independent Canadian newspaper and magazine writer known for his award-winning features. His sports writing has been included in several anthologies.

Read his columns at

Best Long-Form Obit about a Celebrity

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers Category #1: Best long-form (over 800 words) obituary about a celebrity or famous person.

And the winner is. (Dramatic pause.) We have a tie.

The winning entries are Natalia Karp, an obit that Tim Bullamore wrote for the Daily Telegraph of London, and Mr. Toronto Dies at 92, written for the Globe and Mail of Canada by Sandra Martin. (Here's the Mr. Toronto jump page.)

Do you want to know about the winners?

Tim Bullamore is one of the leading obituary writers and researchers in Britain, but his byline doesn't appear as often as it should because some British publications don't include author bylines on obits.

His work is published regularly in the Daily Telegraph and has appeared in The (London) Times, The Guardian and The Independent.

He is in demand on both sides of the Atlantic to speak about the art of the British obituary and has been featured in publications on three continents. In 2005, he hosted the International Association of Obituarists 7th Great Obituary Writers Conference in his home town, Bath, UK.

In addition to his writing commitments, Tim is studying for a PhD, investigating the history and art of the British obituary.

Sandra Martin, a senior feature writer with The Globe and Mail, has won the Atkinson and Canadian Journalism Fellowships and gold and silver National Magazine Awards.

Her latest book is The First Man in My Life: Daughters Write About Their Fathers, which she conceived and edited for Penguin in 2007. She was the co-editor of the annual Oberon Best Short Stories and Coming Attractions anthologies from 1984 through 1986.

Sandra is the co-author of three books, including Rupert Brooke in Canada and Card Tricks: Bankers, Boomers and the Explosion of Plastic Credit, which was shortlisted for the Canadian Business Book Award in 1993.

A past president of PEN Canada, she is the mother of a grown son and daughter. She lives in Toronto with her husband, historian Roger Hall, and her cat, Alice.

Sandra provided the following background on Ed Mirvish, a.k.a. Mr. Toronto:

He was a huge celebrity in Toronto, a poor boy who was a whiz at marketing and who made a fortune in a "small box" store that offered cheap prices to immigrants and only took cash payment.

He was a larger than life character. Once he made his money, he acquired a lot of cultural capital by rescuing The Old Vic in England and building The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

He had been ailing for years, so I had prepared an obituary on him some time ago, but I had forgotten about it when he finally died.

There was a big push on that day because we are a national paper and there is a local paper, The Toronto Star, that has a bigger circulation in the city than we do.

There was a big scramble, and I found my stuff and then there was a huge rush to re-work and update my material because they wanted to go big and run the obituary over two pages.

(Blog-editor's note: When Catherine Dunphy of The Toronto Star saw the entries for the SPOW Awards, she said, "Cast my vote for Mr. Toronto." The two Toronto-produced papers may compete with one another, but a good obit is a good obit no matter where it's published.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Congratulations, Winners of 2008 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers announced the winners of the group's inaugural awards Saturday during the professional obit writers workshop in Portland, Ore., Saturday.

Winning entries for official SPOW Awards were determined by scores offered by SPOW judges.

Just for fun, SPOW also allowed the public to vote for their favorites. The "People's Picks" were tallied separately for bragging rights only.

Obit writers winning official SPOW Awards are:
Tim Bullamore, Daily Telegraph of London;
Sandra Martin, Globe and Mail of Canada;
Tom Hawthorn, Globe and Mail;
Kay Powell, Atlanta Journal Constitution;
Holly Crenshaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution;
Carol Smith, Seattle Post-Intelligencer;
Daniel Asa Rose, Obit Magazine;
Judy Bachrach, Obit Magazine;
Gayle Ronan Sims, Philadelphia Inquirer;
Jim Nicholson, Philadelphia Daily News, retired.

In the People's Picks, Gayle Ronan Sims won in three of the nine categories, Kay Powell in four. Gerry Hostetler of the Charlotte Observer and Daniel As Rose also were named favorites.

Stand by. We'll explain who won what in separate blog items. We'll soon post it all on the SPOW Awards page.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Astonishing AP correction

About time!

Correction: Obit-Gardner story
41 words
8 May 2008
(c) 2008. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

BOSTON (AP) - In a Sept. 17, 2004, obituary for songwriter Donald Yetter Gardner, The Associated Press misstated the year he wrote "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." It was 1944, not 1947.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Pro-Obama Death Notice

NYTimes 5/6/2008

NICHOLS--Cicely, 70, activist, editor, writer, entrepreneur. Her West Village, NYC home was a hub for a broad range of artists, musicians, writers, intellectuals, and activists at the heart of numerous movements. She was a leader in the fight for justice and inspired others to believe in themselves, each other, and their dreams. Memorial: 6:30pm, May 11, Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. No flowers; please give to cancer research by Dr. Herbert Chen, information:, 608-263-2434. Vote Obama!