Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Society of Professional Obituary Writers Reorganization, Conference and Awards

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) is taking a hiatus from hosting a conference and handing out awards for obit writing for 2012 during the group’s reorganization.

SPOW Awards honoring obituary work published in 2011 will be presented along with awards for obits published in 2012 during the 2013 SPOW Conference at a location to be determined.

SPOW seeks to elect a new director, revamp its website and make the organization more relevant in the changing world of journalism.

Interested SPOW members, associate members and friends are invited to participate in the reorganization, recommend director candidates and volunteer for various duties by contacting current director Alana Baranick at

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Woman's paid obit neglects to mention pertinent detail: She killed five people.

A North Carolina newspaper explains why it published a paid obituary that neglected to mention the deceased's responsibility for a shooting rampage. Includes links to news stories.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

'This American Life' Seeks Obit Suggestions

The New York Times Magazine has invited the radio program "This American Life" to guest edit its end-of-the-year obituaries issue called "The Lives They Lived." For this year's issue, The Times Magazine is looking to broaden the scope of the people featured, focusing less on notable people and more on those who died, but received little media attention.

"We're looking for stories, anecdotes, suggestions about people who have died this year that are particularly personal, emotional, unbelievable, extraordinary. These stories can be told by friends or relatives, business associates or casual acquaintances. They can even be told by the deceased people themselves, if archival tape, interviews or memoirs exist. They don't have to be long or epic -– the story isn’t supposed to tell their whole life –- but it'd be great if they're emotional or surprising and evocative of the featured person in some way. In particular, we'd love stories or suggestions about soldiers who have passed away, firefighters or police officers. Beloved teachers and the big turning points in their lives, or just one amazing teachable moment they nailed. Politicians? Town eccentrics? Someone who died who lived a great love story. A child who died. Also, anyone who left a particularly charming or extensive or simply mindblowing instructions for their memorial service."

Send pitches/links to Julie Snyder, senior producer of "This American Life."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quote of the Day

"I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?" --From "The Coffins of Little Hope" by Timothy Schaffert

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Geography of Loss

Patti Digh, author of "Life Is a Verb" and "What I Wish For You," is writing a book called "The Geography of Loss." She's also launched a Tumblr blog to highlight the answers of people around the world to one simple question:

For what or for whom do you grieve?

Personally, I grieve for my best friend, my grandmother, my cats (Princess, Sox, Eastman and Mystery), my high school sweetheart and some of the many people I've covered on the death beat. What about you?

Friday, September 02, 2011

PJ O'Rourke proposes vindictive pre-obits

I can remember when PJ O'Rourke was maybe the funniest writer in the country, when he edited National Lampoon, when he wrote stuff like High Speed Performance Characteristics of Pickup Trucks.

Sadly his work has declined to things like this predictable litany in which he wishes his political enemies dead. It's the usual suspects and there's nothing creative about it and it would be just as bad if his enemies happened to be conservatives. PJ became so partisan that he ate his brain, as well as his bilious good humor.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

NYTimes Crossword Puzzle mentions in death notices

I'm a NYTimes crossword fan and a NYTimes death notice reader, and it's funny how these two obsessions manage to meet every now and then.

Today it is Mildred Swartsberg, who died at 99 and "had a passion for all the arts, sports and The New York Times crossword puzzle. She was great at anything she tried."

I'd hardly choose to be remembered for my devotion to the Sunday crossword - my spaghetti aglio et olio would be a better keepsake. Still today's death notice crossword mention set me to wondering how often the crossword pops up in death notices.

Nexis reveals that it is an astonishing 238 times since 1997, more than once a month. The pioneer was the redoubtable Bertha Newman, an accountant who was remembered as "a voracious reader, a devotee of The New York Times cross word puzzle, a woman of inspired conversation, a deeply caring friend, and a person who never lost her passionate love for the cultural life of this city."

Nor have I!!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The end of the story

The Toronto Star's public editor describes the circumstances in getting an obituary of Canada's Opposition leader on the web within 20 minutes of his death.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Missing survivors

John Millican died on June 11. To honor his partner of 10 years, Terrance James filled out the paperwork for an obituary notice in the Batesville Daily Guard. But when the obit ran five days later, James was not listed as a survivor. Instead the notice featured the names of Millican's deceased parents, and his three siblings, with whom he had little contact.

When questioned about the omission, Pat Jones, the Arkansas newspaper's general manager, told the blog Queerty: "It’s not a gay thing. We don’t list unmarried couples, in-laws, or pets in the free obituaries."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

Not Your Grandma's Obit

Ellen McGarr excelled at quitting, and hers is a livelier read than the usually dry family-placed death notices.
Please note that the comment about dark meat in her chicken salad is as much a myth as all Southerners drink sweet tea.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jim Sheeler, Roy Peter Clark and Mallory Tenore chat about stories of life and death

Jim Sheeler
Did you miss the realtime online chat featuring Jim Sheeler (Pulitzer Prize winner, Case Western Reserve University professor), Roy Peter Clark (Poynter) and Mallory Tenore (Poynter) mentioned in the previous post by Jade Walker?

You can still check out what was covered by visiting the Poynter chat on How to Report & Write Stories of Life, Death.

Live chat: How to report & write stories about life & death

Jim Sheeler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Final Salute” series, and writing coach Roy Peter Clark will chat about writing stories of life and death today at 3 p.m. ET. Click here to participate in the conversation. Twitter users can also ask questions ahead of time using the hashtag #poyntertweets.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffery Williams (1920-2011)

A swell obituary in The Telegraph of a Canadian military historian who was the last member of the paper's obituarists to have served in the Second World War.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The 2011 Grimmies, a.k.a. Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards, Have Been Presented

And the winners are:

Larken Bradley
The 2011 SPOW Lifetime Achievement in Obituary Writing Award was presented to Larken Bradley, who writes obits for the West Marin Citizen in the San Francisco area and does custom obits for clients, at an awards luncheon at Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., on May 13, 2011. Her website is:

The list of official SPOW Award recipients are as follows:

Best Body of Work in Obituary Writing (Long Form): Philip Fine, Globe and Mail.

Best Body of Work in Obituary Writing (Short Form): Maureen O'Donnell, Chicago Sun Times.

Best Obit about an Internationally Known Figure: Sandra Martin, Globe and Mail, for her Jackie Burroughs obit.

Best Obituary Tribute: Tom Hawthorn, Globe and Mail, for his Gene Kiniski obit.

Best Obituary (Short Form) about a Well-Known Regional Figure: Maureen O'Donnell, Chicago Sun Times, for her Joseph Sterling obit.

Best Obituary (Long Form) about a Well-Known Regional Figure: Amy Rabideau Silvers, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for her Lorrie Otto obituary.

Best Obituary (Short Form) about an Average Joe: Amy Rabideau Silvers, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for her Evelyn Fefer obituary.

Best Obituary (Long Form) about an Average Joe: Andrew Meacham, St. Petersburg Times, for his Neal Alan Smith obit.

Winners of the People's Picks, an online poll that is open to the public but has no bearing on the outcome of the official Grimmies judging, are:

Body of Work (Long Form): Ron Csillag, Globe and Mail;

Body of Work (Short Form): Mark Zaborney, Toledo Blade.

Internationally Known Figure: Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Sun Times, for his Solomon Burke obit.

Best Obituary Tribute: Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, for his Tony Curtis obituary.

Best Obituary (Long Form) about an Average Joe: Ron Csillag, Globe and Mail, for his Fred Huffman obit.

Best Obituary (Short Form) about an Average Joe: Maureen O'Donnell, Chicago Sun Times, for her obituary for The DeMuros.

Best Obituary (Long Form) about a Well-Known Regional Figure: Maureen O'Donnell, Chicago Sun Times, for her Jim Cole obit.

Best Obituary (Short Form) about a Well-Known Regiona Figure: Maureen O'Donnell, Chcago Sun Times, for her Joe Vito obituary.

Thursday, May 12, 2011 announces partnership with Society of Professional Obituary Writers to showcase obits for everyday people

Press release from


With help from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, shares newspaper obituaries for teachers, homemakers and others

EVANSTON, Ill. – There’s no shortage of places to read the life stories of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. But too often the obituaries of less well-known people go unnoticed. A new feature launched by online memorial leader seeks to change that by highlighting obituaries for ordinary people who led extraordinary lives – or who simply had exceptionally interesting obituaries.

Through a newly-formed partnership with the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, – which hosts the obituary sections of 900-plus newspapers in the United States and around the world – is showcasing stories not only of movie stars and pop singers, but also of teachers, restaurant servers, homemakers and more.

“We’re delighted to share with our millions of users some of the amazing life stories that are published in newspapers every day,” said President and CEO Stopher Bartol. “By combining our resources with those of the nation’s leading obituary writers, we not only drive traffic to newspaper obituaries, but also help satisfy the appetite of readers for interesting stories and the desire by families for their loved ones’ legacies to be remembered.”

Examples include:
*A devoted married couple who died four days apart, 65 years after they first met.
*A schoolteacher who, at 98, recalled the names of students she had taught half a century earlier. (They remembered her, too.)
*A popular parking meter prosecutor. (Yes, you read that right.)

The highlighted obituaries, regularly added to a blog called The Obit Report that links to the newspaper where the obituary was originally published, are often inspirational – and occasionally funny.

For example, the family of Rose Davis provided a lighthearted accounting of her birth and life, as well as their eventual reunion with her in heaven: We miss you dearly and know that we'll meet again. But, not too soon.

The Obit Report initiative was partly the result of a report by the Medill School of Journalism that found “people interested in obituaries – compelling stories about noteworthy lives – are a sizeable, highly engaged potential audience.”

“The Medill team zeroed in on the fact that people enjoy reading stories about people, whether they’re famous or not,” Bartol said, noting that obituaries are among the most visited sections of newspapers. “Given that publishes thousands of newspaper obituaries each day and SPOW is comprised of award-winning journalists who are passionate about obituaries, the partnership positions us well to identify great content and share it with a broader audience.”

Said Alana Baranick, SPOW director: “The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is delighted that has made The Obit Report a forum on which to spotlight obits about ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. We're sharing life stories that are beautifully or cleverly written by professional journalists as well as family-prepared obits that capture our attention for a variety of reasons.”

The Obit Report is currently available at and via’s Facebook page.

Founded in 1998, is the world’s most timely and comprehensive resource for online obituaries and the undisputed leader in Web-based memorialization. With 18 million unique visitors each month, the domain is among the 100 most visited on the Internet.’s network includes thousands of newspapers and funeral homes in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. By making interactive memorial content accessible directly via the websites of newspapers and funeral homes, helps people expand the ways in which they can express condolences and share remembrances of loved ones. A privately held company, is headquartered in Evanston, Ill.

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is a group of journalists who write, produce and present obituaries for newspapers and other news entities. SPOW spotlights the art of obituary writing while helping obituary writers improve their craft.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

NYTimes obit writer talks about Bin Laden obit

Sounds like it was barely updated over a decade ... I bet this isn't one of those where the subject cooperates.

Monday, April 18, 2011

People's Picks and the Grimmies (SPOW Awards) will be announced May 13

at an awards luncheon at Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the 2011 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Conference.

For conference details, visit our conference page.

People's Picks for Internationally Famous Individual

Read about these famous people by clicking their names:
Miep Gies
Jean Charpentier
Howard O. Jones
Solomon Burke
Jackie Burroughs

People's Picks for Short-form Regional Figure

Click the names, read the obits, then decide.
Carolyn Rodgers
Joe Vito
Joseph Sterling
Leigh Van Valen
Robert "Squirrel" Lester

Long-form Obits for Average Joes await the People's Picks

The Long-form Average Joe finalists are:
Fred Huffman
Neal Alan Smith
Patricia Travers
Margaret St. James
Jim and Bettie Wise
Got a favorite?

People's Picks for Long-form Regional Figure

Finalists in the Long-form Regional Figure category for the SPOW and its People's Picks honors are:
Arturo Petterino
Lorrie Otto
Marylena Graves
Jim Cole
Laura Legge

People's Picks for Short-form Average Joe obit

The finalists for SPOW Awards for Short-form obits about Average Joes are:
Patricia and Lou DeMuro
Denise Hodges
Evelyn Fefer
Kendall Tapley
Mark Butler
Michael Schwass

You'll notice we've got six finalists in this category. That's because we had three obits tied for the final two slots in the top five. This seemed like the best way to handle it.

People's Picks for obit tributes

Some famous people are featured in the top entries of the Tribute category of the 2011 Society of Professional Obituary Writers competition.

If you like the obit for Tony Curtis, prefer the one for Solomon Burke or think one for a person you've never heard of is the most awesome, that's dandy.

But please don't choose the movie star because he's your all-time favorite actor or the soul singer because you like his music.

Please choose the obit that moves you, informs you and/or entertains you.

Click the name to read the obit.
Tony Curtis

Solomon Burke

Gene Kiniski

Jim Wakefield

Ronald Chase Sr.

People's Picks: Short-form Body of Work

Click each "lettered" obit writer. Read all five obits that were written by that individual. Then choose your favorite.

Obit writer F

Obit writer G

Obit writer H

Obit writer I

Obit writer J

The People's Picks Poll: The Unofficial Popularity Contest for Obit Writing

Click here to read Obit writer A's 5 obits.

Obit writer B's work is here.

Here's Obit writer C's entry.

And Obit writer D.

And finally Obit writer E.

These are the five finalists for the Long-form Body of Work category of the 2011 Society of Professional Obituary Writer's Awards for obit writing.

And this is the first installment of the 2011 SPOW People's Picks Poll.

This just-for-fun exercise allows the public to let us know which obits and obit writers they like best. It has no bearing on the official winners. A panel of obituary professionals has already selected the winners in all eight categories as well as the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award.

(I know, I know. Obit writers getting awards for "body" of work and "lifetime" achievement does seem a bit ironic.)

All entries are presented without bylines, headlines or photos. The obits have to stand on their own.

And they do!

To the contestants: Great work!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lifetime summed up in four words or less

Lou Wigdor, senior writer and editor for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, wrote about "reader-penned necros" from the Daily Hampshire Gazette for his Wig & Pen blog.

He hopes you'll find the piece entertaining.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Public Eavesdropping in the San Francisco Chronicle

"I haven't read the obituaries yet. I'm saving them for dessert." Elderly man reading the newpaper and talking to his mate, overheard at the French Hotel in Berkeley by Robin May.

Avoiding the 'knight in shining armor' and other obituary cliches

I recently conducted an obit workshop at the 2011 CMA-CBI Spring College Media Convention in New York City called "Death Is Your Editor." Over the course of an hour, I talked about how to:

* breathe life into obituary writing
* research a subject you can’t interview
* avoid the curse of the cliche
* write the last word on someone’s life

Then I had the audience pen the opening lines of their own obits. Here is one attendee's take on the workshop.

Monday, April 04, 2011


The Guardian discovers a convicted criminal wrote an obituary of one of his victims. Chris Elliott, whose title is reader's editor, writes about contributions published in good faith.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing Obits: A mini tutorial

For the briefest tutorial ever on obit writing, check out this podcast link.
Carolyn Gilbert, founder of, interviews Kay Powell in this podcast. It takes several minutes to view.
While you're on the page, check out the other obit podcasts posted regularly by Gilbert and Dr. Cory Franklin.
Those podcasts are online obits for the dead. I am Kay Powell, and I am not dead.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another byline for the NYTimes counterpart of Dr. Death

Donn Downey of the Globe and Mail. Mel Gussow of the New York Times.

Both wrote advance obits for Elizabeth Taylor, whose famous hospital stays probably outnumbered her movie roles.

And the indomitable Ms. Taylor outlived both obit writers.

Mara Gray posted a brief article about Gussow for AOL News titled "Elizabeth Taylor's Obit Writer Died 6 Years Ago".

Another byline for the late Dr. Death

A full-page obit of Elizabeth Taylor in the March 24 edition of the Globe and Mail was written by Donn Downey, a veteran obituarist who died in April, 2001. This was his 12th credited obit since his death. His own obit in the newspaper, based in Toronto, Canada, noted that the well-liked wordsmith was known by his colleagues as Dr. Death.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


There's nothing like a death in the family to create a new FOBIT, Friend of Obits. Check out this Huffington Post piece by Pamela Tom.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Ides of March: Deadline for entering obituary writing competition

 Just a reminder: The deadline for submitting entries for the 2011 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards is March 15.

If you need an extension, please let us know.

Click here for contest details.

Pictured above right is Kay Powell, showing off the two SPOW Awards she won in 2008. Last year, Kay became the third recipient of the SPOW Lifetime Achievement Award.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

2011 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Conference and Registration

Society of Professional Obituary Writers Conference
May 12-14, 2011
St. Petersburg, Fla.

Thursday, May 12:

6 p.m. – SPOW Conference kickoff dinner starts at 6 p.m. at The Columbia at the Pier restaurant, 800 2nd Avenue N.E., St. Petersburg. Individuals are responsible for ordering and paying for their own meals. (fyi: We may have to change the time from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Stay tuned.)

All sessions Friday and Saturday at The Poynter Institute, 801 Third Street South, St. Petersburg. All times are approximate. Schedule is subject to change.

Friday, May 13:
9-10 a.m.- Welcome, opening remarks and “Getting to know you” icebreaker, followed by short break.

10-11:30 a.m. - Keynote speaker: Kelly McBride, a senior Poynter faculty member, will speak about reporting, writing and ethics pertaining to obituary writing.

11:30 a.m. - Short subject to be determined.

Noon - 2011 SPOW Awards luncheon
Lunch followed by presentation of SPOW Awards.
Winners will be asked to share the story behind their winning obits and to take questions.

1-4 p.m. (in not particular order) - Award winners will continue the lunchtime talk, if necessary.
Dan Reimold, a journalism professor at the University of Tampa, and Michelle Boyet, a former online producer for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, will present a session on blogging and social media.
"I’ve got something to say" - Obit writers talk about whatever’s on their minds.

Friday sessions will end no later than 4 p.m.

Saturday, May 14:
9 a.m.  - Brief explanation of Poynter Institute’s News University online obituary writing course by its instructor, Alana Baranick, a.k.a. SPOW director.

 9:30-11 a.m. -  Police Forum: A panel of St. Petersburg Times and reporters and editors will discuss coverage of their city’s recent series of police shootings, obituaries written for the dead police, coverage of their funerals and other issues raised in the process. Local host Andrew Meacham will lead the forum.

11:30 a.m.-noon: Conference wrap-up, SPOW business, 2012 SPOW Convention.

Additional topics will be addressed before and after the aforementioned highlights. Our time at Poynter ends at noon Saturday. This will allow conferees to continue independent discussions off campus, if they like, do the tourist thing or leave town early.

Registration is being handled through Click here to read about and pay for registration fees and membership dues.

Hotel Indigo, 234 Third Ave. North, St. Petersburg, is our official conference hotel.

Make reservations by calling the hotel directly at 727.822.4814 by April 12, 2011, to get the Early Bird rate of $99 per night.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rambling man: Nature lover’s life full of peaks, valleys

Another outstanding local news story. Who said good writing in small-town dailies is dead?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mash those details

In case you haven't seen this on Facebook:
Obituary editor: “Can you imagine liking mashed potatoes so much that it’s included in your obituary?”
To us, that's a detail worth exploring.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Barbara "Bookie" Grasgreen, daughter of a "ne'er-do-well absentee father"

Barbara Grasgreen's family may have gotten carried away while writing Grasgreen's obituary that ran in the paid death notice section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 9, 2011. Or perhaps the deceased wrote her own obit in advance.

Whatever the case, the obit starts with an attention grabbing sentence:
BARBARA GRASGREEN "BOOKIE" (Weiner) was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh to immigrant parents; Morris, a cooper and ne'er-do-well absentee father and Ida Gorodinsky, a seamstress and dedicated, determined, nurturing mother.

Click here to read the whole obit before it disappears from the Internet.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Green Burial in Georgia

Green burial is gaining popularity. Our colleague Kate Sweeney, pictured here, has produced a piece on Georgia's only conservation burial ground for the Atlanta PBS station, WABE. Here's the link to Kate's story:

Founded by monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit 80 years ago, the burial ground is filled not with tombstone after tombstone but with birds and trees and indigenous wildlife and flora.

Kate's segment records her trip to the burial ground with Pat Fahey who visits his wife, Jackie, buried there in a grave he and his sons dug.

Go with Kate to this conservation burial ground, one of only five in the nation.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Granny's Virtual Funeral

Can't make it to a funeral? Work, distance keeping you away? Not to worry. Now you can view the funeral online while at work or at a bar. The phenom may be coming to your town soon. Check out this New York Times article about the growth in the number of funeral homes now streaming funeral services online, some open to everyone, some by invitation only.
I found an online funeral site years ago and shared it with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom. You can just imagine the comments that prompted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We Find That One Good Story

At the Lincoln Journal Star, Cindy Lange-Kubick tells the story of the dead to readers in Nebraska.

In the Sunday, Jan. 23 Journal Star, she has a 1A piece about her niche in the newsroom,

As a sidebar, Cindy interviewed me for a column,

It's always interesting to me to learn how different newspapers handle obits. I was delighted to talk with Cindy about the Journal Star's treatment of the interesting and notable people in its reader area when they die.

And, thanks to Alana and SPOW for keeping us all connected.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mike King obituary: He was one of our own

A young reporter for The Gazette of Montreal recounts the unenviable task of writing the obituary for a colleague who died unexpectedly one weekend last summer.