Saturday, October 29, 2005

Mac's Facts #22: Challenging a POW claim

Here's Mike McGrath's straight stuff about challenging POW wannabes. It's long, but obit writers need to know this stuff. The youngest Vietnam veteran, serving just a few months in 1973, would now be about 51 years old, but some of the senior officers in the early years of the war are in their later 80s now.

Mac's Facts no. 22: 1-29-2004. Challenging a POW Claim.
From time to time we receive requests to confirm details of a story told by some person who claims to have been a prisoner of war (POW) during the conflict in Southeast Asia. False POW stories are not uncommon. Armed with the following information, most persons should be able to determine whether a POW story is true or false.
If pressed for time, go directly to the BOTTOM LINE of this document.
The Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) is the custodian of the official list of Americans who were prisoners of war or otherwise unaccounted for during the conflict in Southeast Asia. The formal title of the list is: "U.S. Personnel Missing, Southeast Asia (and Selected Foreign Nationals)." It (the PMSEA), was last updated in May 2001. The PMSEA contains the names of every American serviceman (and U.S. civilian) who was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia (Jan 1961 to Oct 1988). As well, it contains the names of all 3,755 men and women who were ever listed as missing...or a POW for even one day. Only 802 of those 3,755 are known to have come out alive--through escape, early release from enemy control, or through negotiated repatriation (Feb-Apr 1973) at the end of the Vietnam War. 661 who came out alive were U.S. military personnel. 141 were civilians or foreign nationals. These categories for MIA/POWs who came out alive are known as "RR" (returnee) and "EE" (escapee).
We believe DPMO's official list is a complete and accurate list of all Americans who were POWs in Southeast Asia. If a person who claims to have been a POW, but is not listed, believes the DPMO's list is incomplete, you might wish to invite the claimant to answer the following questions so you can substantiate his claim to having been a POW and help him gain official DOD recognition of his POW status. Our experience consistently shows that pretenders will give fuzzy, incomplete and dishonest answers. Also, not one of the hundreds of claimants have ever proven the DOD records wrong. Not a single POW was left off the official POW/MIA casualty lists at the end of the Vietnam War (Note: A few spelling errors, duplicate names, non-existent names, etc. have been corrected since the first lists came out in early 1973). Do you really believe that your claimant will be the first of thousands of wanna be POW claimants to convince DOD to change their records and include them after 30 years? Phony POW claimants will refuse to give details that can be verified. They will equivocate and feign anger that you don’t believe them. They will claim CIA affiliation and claim that their mission is still classified, therefore they "are unable to give you details." That’s stuff for James Bond movies, not for the truth.
All bona-fide POWs can easily answer the following questions. Here goes:
Specific date he entered the service. Specific date he was released or retired from active duty. Military service number. The Army and USAF switched to SSN 7-1-69. Then the Navy and Marine Corps switched to SSN in July 1972. The claimant should provide you with his full name, date of birth and social security number. You should look at his drivers license or other legal document to verify the information. You will need this for any request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). All individual service records of veterans discharged, and who have no current service obligations, are at: National Personnel Records Center, Military Records, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Your chances of getting an answer to a Freedom of Information request will be much better if you submit the person’s complete name, SSN and/or service number, date of birth and branch of service. Expect a wait of 60 to 90 days. For service inquiries, you might wish to contact USN LT Mike Gallant, BUPERS-621, at fax number (901) 874-6654, to inquire whether or not a man served in the military.
Military rank and occupational specialty when captured, and when released or retired from active duty.
Date and location/circumstances of capture. Date, location, circumstances of rescue, escape, or release.
Specific unit he was serving with when he was captured. The full name and rank of at least one member
of his unit at the time he was captured. The "I don't remember. It was a long time ago," ploy is weak and unacceptable. Most veterans still have copies of Special Orders--promotions, reassignments, citations for awards, etc. Also, orders issued by their unit that will contain names of other persons in the unit.
If your man claims to have been an aviator, ask him the name and location of the unit and air base or aircraft carrier from which he flew. If a carrier, date of departure for the cruise. The specific type of aircraft he was flying when he went down and was captured. Important: The names of other aviators who were in his unit or wing who were (1) killed and (2) captured at any time during the war. Name, rank and fate of other crew members of his aircraft. The names of wingmen/crew members of other aircraft that took part in the mission--as well as their current addresses. The names and squadron designation of all other squadrons in his airwing. And for good measure, ask him the type of engine his aircraft had!
Location and circumstances of capture. As a minimum, the country in which captured (NVN, SVN, Laos or Cambodia). Names and ranks or position of other Americans who were killed or captured in the same
incident. Name of at least one other American who was held captive with him, and that person's fate (dead, escaped, released). He should give specific circumstances of his own rescue, escape, or release. These details are the heart of any true POW story. Name and rank of the officer who debriefed him after he returned to American control (every returnee was debriefed). Location where the debriefing took place.
Copy of DD Form 214 (Discharge Certificate) which lists decorations and awards. (You might wish to remember that DD-214s are not accepted as legal proof of many of the qualifications which are written thereon. There have been so many DD-214s stolen and forged that they in and of themselves are not considered valid legal proof for much of anything. Discharged veterans may be asked to provide corroborating proof if they are using the DD-214 to attempt to establish a claim of some sort.)
Ask him to describe the medical follow up program for former POWs. (All the POWs, whether Air Force,
Navy, Army or Marines have been attending the same joint services medical follow up program at the Naval Operational Medical Institute at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL. If he claims that he is receiving military retirement salary, ask him to show you a copy of his most recent W2 Form for that pay, or bank statements showing a record of the monthly deposits of military retirement pay. If he is medically retired, then a portion of his retirement check is considered tax free on his IRS annual filing (Form 1040). He should be able to show you medical retirement papers, the IRS exclusion statement, Form-1040s, his DD-214, and a ton of other papers verifying regular or disability retirement.
Persons who falsely claim to be former POWs typically try to avoid providing specific details about their claimed captivity by hiding behind claims that they were captured while on a mission that is still classified. The "I can't compromise classified information," ploy is phony. There are no classified missions or details. The war has been over for 27 years. CIA cover stories always fall apart when examined. We are free to talk about any mission or experience that happened. The "fire at St. Louis destroyed my records," ploy is not valid, either. The fire destroyed records of many Korean War veterans and some WW II veterans, but not the records of Vietnam War veterans. Many Phony POW claimants say they have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and they use this as an excuse as to why they can’t remember the details to the questions you are asking. Don’t believe them. It is a common ruse. A real PTSD diagnosis is rare. Ask to see his VA medical record, which documents his claim to PTSD. While you are at it, ask to see his VA medical identity card. POWs have the following statement stamped on the front, directly under the ID photo: "Service Connected POW." This statement applies to all POWS from WW II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts. If it’s not there, he is not considered a POW.
Some phonies have claimed to have been negotiated out of prison by Dr. Henry Kissinger who they claim paid a ransom in gold. Another common feature of false POW stories is a claim to have been freed in a dramatic rescue by US Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Forces, or other elite units. US forces made many heroic rescues of downed airmen and other Americans in desperate situations. They also carried out several operations aimed at rescuing American POWs from suspected prison camps; however, the only rescue operation that freed an American POW from captivity was a July 1969 operation by Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) troops from a Regional Forces unit, a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit, and the Reconnaissance Company of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 5th Regiment. Unfortunately, the freed American, Larry Aiken, died a short time later at Walter Reed Hospital from head injuries a guard inflicted on him before rescuers could reach him. US forces carried out several operations that led to the rescue of the crews and passengers of downed American aircraft who were evading capture. The movie " BAT 21" is based on one such incident. US forces also took part in several operations that led to the rescue of RVNAF prisoners from POW camps. For example, Operation Cranberry Bog in August 1968 led to the rescue of 45 ARVN POWs. In yet another example, a US Navy SEAL, Richard G. Couch, led a successful rescue of 19 ARVN prisoners. In another incident, a helicopter crew rescued Army Sgt. Wm. Taylor on May 6, 1968. A force of armed helicopters attacked a guerrilla camp with machine guns and rockets, unaware that Sgt Taylor was in the camp. Sgt Taylor, who was still recovering from a compound fracture to one leg, a shattered knee, and numerous abrasions and burns he suffered in an air crash on 20 March 1968, received additional wounds from one of the rockets; yet he still managed to take advantage of the confusion during the air attack to crawl out of the camp and into a clearing where he signaled the crew of one of the helicopters. He was rescued with the leg irons of his captors still clamped to his ankles. Sgt Taylor is alive and well today.
There were instances in which American forces accidentally happened upon Americans who were trying to escape from captivity and rescued them. The most famous of these incidents was the rescue of US Army 1st Lieutenant James N. Rowe on 31 December 1968 (see book entitled "Five Years to Freedom," by James N. Rowe, Ballantine Books, paperback edition 1984, available on line from Barnes and Noble). Another well documented rescue occurred Laos July 20, 1966. Lt. Dieter Dengler was able to escape after 5 ½ months in captivity. An Army helicopter crew found him wandering through Laos near death from starvation. His story is told in his book, "Escape From Laos." These are the only two cases we know of.
The only rescue from captivity in North Vietnam was for Lt. Frank Prendergast on March 9, 1967. Two soldiers captured Frank in the surf. When Frank saw a rescue helicopter bearing down on them, he shot one soldier with a survival pistol from his vest, knocked the other guard down in the surf, and ran for the helo, which then picked him up. Because of the short duration of captivity, Frank was never listed as a POW/MIA on government records. He did receive various service awards for bravery.
While there were many heroic rescues of downed airmen and other Americans from difficult situations, there were no other dramatic rescues of Americans from POW camps. A total of 30 military men escaped. Their names are well known and are probably not the name of the man you are challenging.
Also, the following web site contains a list of all 3,755 persons who were listed as prisoners or missing as a result of the Vietnam War. (NOTE: This web site is maintained by a 501-C organization, POW Network.)
info@pownetwork.orgor at their web page,
DPMO's web page is at: . Here, you'll find the Department of Defense lists of all POWs during the Vietnam conflict (1952-1988). Anyone who wishes to contact DPMO to confirm that a person is or is not listed in the PMSEA should contact the DPMO Personnel Affairs Officer, Mr. Larry Greer, at 703-699-1169 extension 169, Fax: 703-699-4375.
Larry.Greer@osd.milor write to: OASD International Security Affairs, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, 2400 Defense Pentagon, Washington, DC 20301-2400.
The following information about the PMSEA database is provided by DPMO: "The official U.S. government database of all POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War, repeat DOES, contain the names of individuals who served with and for the CIA during the war. It also includes personnel who were held captive for very, very short periods of time. It includes personnel who wore the military uniform, and those who did not. It includes those who worked so-called classified missions, covert missions, and "black missions." It includes missionaries as well as foreign nationals whose cases are related to those of missing Americans. It includes personnel captured or lost in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China. It includes those missing or lost at sea. It includes persons whose loss or capture incidents range from 1952 to 1988. This database was constructed during the war and refined throughout the years from reports by appropriate military or civilian authorities. It has been in existence for more than 30 years, and has been challenged dozens of times for "accuracy." It has never proven to have omitted a name that should be listed. "
Here is an additional statement from Mr. Greer, DPMO: : "The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office is the single U.S. Government agency, by law, charged with worldwide policy control and oversight of the Government's mission to provide the fullest possible accounting of our POWs and MIAs. Given that broad mission, the DPMO is required to maintain accurate databases to aid in that accounting effort. The PMSEA (Personnel Missing SEA) contains the names and other pertinent data on all personnel
(military, civilian, non-governmental) who were, or are, missing in action. It also contains names and pertinent data on those who were POWs during the Vietnam War. The data contained on these databases is provided by the military services, through normal personnel reporting (morning reports, etc) during wartime. DPMO's maintenance of this database includes actions necessary to reflect a change in status, for example, from MIA (or unaccounted-for) to "accounted-for" when remains are recovered and identified. The Department of Veterans Affairs has from time to time sought the assistance of DPMO to verify information regarding VA claims. Sincerely, Larry Greer, Director of Public Affairs, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office." (Source date: 1 May 2003)

You can obtain a serviceman’s records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), Military Personnel Records (MPR). The NPRC-MPR is the repository of millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century. NPRC (MPR) also stores medical treatment records of retirees from all services, as well as records for dependent and other persons treated at Naval medical facilities. Information from the records is made available upon written request (with signature and date) to the extent allowed by law. The NPRC-MPR does not accept e-mail or telephone requests for military personnel records or information from those records. The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a) and Department of Defense directives require a written request, signed and dated, to access information from military personnel records.
I believe that a full name and Social Security Account Number are sufficient information to locate a former service member's military records; however, it might be helpful to also include the person's correct date of birth if you know it. To obtain a Form 180 to request information on an individual, go to:
You can also obtain useful information and download request forms at the NPRC-MPR's Internet web site at the following URL:
This site contains useful information regarding military personnel, health and medical records stored at NPRC (MPR). It also contains complete instructions for preparing and submitting requests. If you prefer to use regular mail, you can request copies of Veteran Records by writing to:
National Personnel Records Center
Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR)
9700 Page Ave.
St Louis, MO 63132-5100
Ask the NPRC-MPR to send you appropriate forms and instructions for preparing and submitting requests for information fro m a former service member's military records. By the internet, here is how to Obtain Copies of Military Records: You can get a copy of information stored in your (or someone else's) military records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. Here's how:
False claims to having been a POW are not uncommon. Here are internet addresses which describe two recently exposed false claims to having been a POW in Southeast Asia. The Cincinnati Enquirer described one such claim (Ref: Donald Nicholson) in an article you can find at:
. You can find The Cincinnatii Enquirer's follow up articles that exposed the false claim at :
, and Another false claim in Tennessee was exposed in an article that can be found at: . Also, see: and check the fourth item in the "local news." (Ref: Dinsmore).
When you hit the wall, you might consider using outside help from organizations who are equipped to handle personnel investigations. One such group is headed by LtCol Dick Bielen, USA (Ret) at U.S. Locator Service. This Private firm specializes in locating former members of the military as well as obtaining copies of their service records. They will also conduct a background check on a person’s military service and claims. Fees will be charged, but they are reasonable. Contact Dick at: or at (314) 423-0860.
Verification Sources:
* POW returnee (includes all who escaped) lists are available online for Vietnam. Defense Dept, DPMO,
* POW Network has two paper lists for Korean War returnees, none are available on the Internet.
* Only WWII Navy and Marines casualties are on the Internet. There is NO KNOWN site for WWII Army, Army Air Force, Air Corps.
* NAM POWS (org of Vietnam returnees): NAM-POW Historian (ex-POW), Mike McGrath>
* Korean War ex-POWs: Lloyd Pate (Ex-POW), Korean War ex-POWs
and American Ex-POWs, Clydie J Morgan
* ALL Medal of Honor can be found at 100's of sites on the internet. Great site is:
* The ONLY lists of Purple Heart on the internet are "self submit" sites and they do NOT verify eligibility. Purple Heart Society tells you "how to" file for military records. The ONLY place we know to verify PH is the records center. There were MILLIONS - with no public list.
* Pearl Harbor survivors - no clue as to lists.
Hopefully the foregoing information will prove useful. It is probably only useful in regard to solidifying in your mind that your man was never a real POW in the Vietnam War, not even for a day. None of the Phony POWs will be able to prove a single specific point detailed above. Wishy-washy obfuscation should not confuse you. In fact, it should convince you that your man is leading you on a wild goose chase. Lastly, be aware that con artists often use the "POW Sob Story" as a means to win your confidence and trust. When the con artist is gone (with your money), you’ll be asking yourself how you could have been so naive. Lots of phony POWs also con unsuspecting women of their " love." They make hits on women as they try to impress them with their tales of honor, bravery, capture, torture and escapes. Some have even married unsuspecting women while still clinging to the POW sob story. Don’t be conned by a phony POW claimant. Cut your losses now. Dump him. Report him to the police if he has perpetrated a fraud. When you get frustrated trying to prove the improvable about an acquaintance who’s story is suspect, contact us at Our NAM-POWs, Inc. Home Page is at: We’ll be glad to confirm what you already know by now—Your guy is not on the PMSEA List—and he is a Phony POW. We keep track. We care. Let us know.
THE BOTTOM LINE: You can skip all the qualification stuff above and get right to the truth. If a person claims to have been a Vietnam era POW (SEA), and his name is not in the DOD PMSEA reference document, he is a liar and a "Phony POW." He doesn’t warrant your trust or friendship. Dump him! (Authentic POWs/MIAs -- all 3,792 of them -- are listed by Department of Defense on the internet at:

A POW phony snags an obit writer

Hi all,
Retired Navy captain Mike McGrath, with whom I've worked on several Vietnam-related feature stories, gave his permission to have this posted at the obituary blog. I've eliminated the reporter's name, even though you'd be likely to find it easily, because this type of hoax could happen to any obit writer in the country.

If this post works (I sympathize with Andrew McKie's earlier confusion over posting) I'll add a separate post with Mike's details of how to spot military wannabes.

Capt. McGrath's letter, addressed to the Express-News reporter:

I am retired Navy captain, Mike McGrath. I am the historian of NAM-
POWs Corporation, a 501 (c) organization for the POWs of the Vietnam
War. I am writing about the obituary you did dated Thursday, October
20, 2005 for the San Antonio Express-News, titled "Munoz was held as
POW nine months in Vietnam War."
I know you print information that is provided by the family, but you have
been hoodwinked with false information. Mr. Munoz was never held for
even a single day with any one of us, the surviving 661 POWs of the
Vietnam War, nor is he known by the Department of Defense in this
regard. This appears to be a cruel hoax he foisted upon his family, and
the readers of your fine newspaper.
This often happens to Obit writers. They get false information, and do
not have the means to check it out before they publish it. You were
correct to contact "officials at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery," as
stated in your article, but you should really contact the Department of
Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, DC.
Contact Larry Greer, Public Affairs Officer during Washington, DC
working hours at: 703-699-1169. Fax 703-602-4375. Mr. Greer is info copied on this message. He will
be expecting your call. He was never "listed as missing in action," as
your article stated. If he was, he would be listed in the PMSEA, as
noted in the next paragraph.
An official listing of all 3,792 MIAs/POWs is available on the internet at: Mr. Munoz is not listed.
There is no debrief on file (with the 661 debriefs from the rest of us).
No service record documentation. No unit after-action reports,no
casualty reports, no CACO assignment to the family, no Western Union
notification to the family, no base commander's notification to the
family, no service communication with the family, no Purple Heart
award, no awards in connection with his claims, medals, decorations,
witnesses, medical record entries, Veterans Administration
documentation, or corroboration of any kind. His service records are
available to you through the National Personnel Records Center in St.
Louis, MO if you are interested in a follow-up to the false information
that was provided to you. Simply submit a Form 180 request, under the
FOIA. You'll have the results in 30 to 60 days.
Mike McGrath
5 years 8 months POW in NVN
NAM-POW Historian (See also:
See attachment for ideas how these con-artists work

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

continuing saga of poynter, outing and citizen obits

larken bradley, recent nna-award-winning obit writer from the point reyes (calif.) light, wrote to steve outing about his oct. 5 poynter centerpiece, "let's breathe some new life into obituaries."

steve-o referred her to his oct. 21 posting - -
in which he suggests that in this new era of citizen journalism there's room for a new job: professional obituary writer. he's not talking about a replacement for reporters writing news obits. he's talking about someone who gets paid by families to pen post-mortem tributes for online sites or whatever.

then he posted an item today (oct. 26) about this subject and larken's freelance obit-writing enterprise. it's at:

i see one major problem with this idea as it relates to steve-o's hope that we can come up with a business model that would better serve the bereaved. these folks still will have to pay a fee for the professional obit writer's services. poor folks would continue to be left out, because they wouldn't be able to afford to pay larken's or some other pro's fee.

but all this talk has got me thinking that between us - all of us - we should be able to take steve-o's challenge and find a workable solution.

i'll post more of my thoughts on this subject after i've discussed my ideas with my editor(s) at the plain dealer (in cleveland, ohio, if you didn't know).

do you have any suggestions, ideas or comments on this? come on. let's brainstorm and show steve-o what we obit writers - the news reporter variety - can do when we apply ourselves.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Where he wasn't born

"He once joked on radio that he had been born under a whelk stall in Walton; his mother was furious."
Guardian obit of British comedian Cyril Fletcher (1/3/05)

If only more of the people I write about had thought to say things like this before they needed nothing but gravity to hold them down.


Friday, October 14, 2005

A little obit humor

Speaking of paid obits ... I am not sure the source of this tidbit, possibly the 2005 Farmer's Almanac.
It concerns a woman who went into her local newspaper office to write the obituary for her recently deceased husband. The ad rep told her the fee for a submitted obituary was $1 per word. She paused, reflected, and then said, "Well, then, let it read, 'Billy Bob died.' "
"Sorry, ma'am, replied the editor, "but I'm afraid there's a seven-word minimum on all submitted obituaries."
Flustered, the woman thought for a minute and then instructed the ad rep to write, "Billy Bob died. 1983 pickup for sale."

Last words? He had last expletives

Bravo to the Colorado Springs Gazette for running this crusty man's obit. I congratulated the reporter, who predictably heard tut-tuts from the city's conservative readers. This is the sort of life story that makes writing obits fun -- and that ought to give the critics a glimpse into lives they otherwise would never imagine.

Link: If that link doesn't work -- can't you cut-and-paste on this blog? if you can, someone tell me how -- then go to, and click on "Old Salt Probably Had the Last Word."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Long paid obituaries

The Albany Times-Union ran a story today about a man who paid $2,600 to run a paid obit about his mother for two days. I guess the paper found this remarkable; it's commonplace out here in Oregon. Here is the link (I hope this works!):

Saturday, October 08, 2005

more on the poynter piece

The proper response to the Denver papers' statement that, due to the volume of requests, "the editorial departments cannot guarantee publication of a news obituary," shouldn't be "Wrong!" It should be "Duh!"

Reporters like me, who regularly cover the death beat, are somewhat bewildered that a distinguished journalist like Steve Outing thinks that obituaries are supposed to "honor" the dead.

Or that everyone should be "commemorated properly."

Or that we obit writers are supposed to ease the pain of the grieving family. Although many of us do serve as surrogate therapists, when we interview the bereaved.

It's a view commonly held by bereaved relatives and by readers in general that obituaries are tributes. They need to understand that an obituary written by a reporter is not the same thing as a eulogy. It's a news story. It's not designed to honor the deceased. Obituaries shouldn't be platforms from which to praise or to trash the recently departed. Like the obituary's more prestigious colleagues - the news stories that dominate the front page and sometimes win Pulitzers for their authors - obit articles should be fair, balanced, accurate and aimed at providing information to readers. They should not be love fests.

Many newspapers don't run reporter-written obits every day. Those are the papers that write obits only for prominent people.

Those of us, who write for papers that run at least one reporter-written obit a day, know that we're not going to have a big-time stiff on our plate every day. Most days, we try to choose subjects, whose stories will be interesting to our readers.

Outing did get lucky when the lovely and talented Claire Martin took an interest in his dad's story. I'm sure she had several other candidates vying for her attention and the allotted space for "A Colorado Life."

The editor, who told Outing that it wasn't likely that his dad would get an obit, could have conveyed the same message without being so cold.

At The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), I give obit-seekers a reality check by saying:
That we generally run only one or two obits a day out of a dozen or more candidates.
That even if we write the obit, we can't guarantee when or whether it will run.
That we recommend a paid death notice be placed to be certain the person's death and funeral service arrangements are announced in a timely manner.
That our editors expect us to write about movers, shakers and newsmakers first.
That we have only a small window of time for publishing their loved one's obit.

Then I tell them to submit information about their loved ones anyway, because you never know. We just might choose to write an obit for the dearly departed.

I give them all the guidance I can. I'm on their side. I want them to succeed in their obit quest. I want a good story. It's important to let them know that they have done all that they could to honor their loved ones.

Outing's centerpiece also is under discussion at:

Friday, October 07, 2005

The lies families tell (in obituaries)

Trudi Hahn's reaction to the post on the Romenesko column: Hear, hear, Trudi!
Her post is near the middle:

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Romenesko column

I found this columnist's tirade disturbing. My newspaper sees this kind of attitude and sense of entitlement all the time.
When his father had died, and he was in grief, he found the paper's service cold and sterile.
I have news for him: This is a business. Newspapers are in business to make a profit.
If we can make a connection to our readers through running obituaries -- in whatever form, online or print -- great!
But by what reasoning does he think newspapers should offer up free any of our rapidly shrinking and valuable newshole as a public service? How is there any possible way that the 25,000 people who die each year in our city can be commemorated in anything more than a short FREE obit, if that?
What I think his tirade represents more than anything else is how people who work at newspapers sneer at obituaries until a friend or relative dies, and then suddenly an obituary becomes Very Important. Maybe I'm wrong about this writer, but I would bet anything he was never a big supporter of obituaries at any of the newspapers he's worked for.
And that's the end of my tirade.

The flow of online tributaries

As an addendum to that Poynter piece, of course he's far from the first person to use Blogger to write an obit, and also not the first to use the rather wonderful photo service Flickr in this way either; I happen to know one of the founders of Flickr, who told me that within a few days of its launch, people were creating albums of this kind, and it made all of them at Flickr HQ both proud and sad at the same time.

The writer of the piece suggests that online death notices should be the domain of newspapers. I say, perhaps. Although the creation of a web tribute service could be a way of earning money for a newspaper, I personally doubt that it would be very lucrative. Unless you're prepared to invest in creating something truly remarkable (and for local newspapers, it's just not worth the cost and effort - and many should be spending that money first on the rest of their website), the truth is that, although some newspapers have a close relationship with readers when it comes to death notices in print, I would question how many people would read these notices online.

Perhaps, as the writer suggests, newspapers will have to choose between one-line notices followed by a web address, and the current model. But few people will remember to take their newspaper and place it next to their computer, unless it's to read a notice about someone they knew. There are many reasons why readers like browsing death notices. To see if they knew anyone; to read mini stories and tributes; to note any eccentricities; to feel, as Saroyan was quoted in my previous posting, alive.

People also read them because they arrive alongside the rest of the newspaper. They don't buy the paper specifically to see who's died; they probably won't go to the website for that either. It's in the package, so they read it. One line plus web address would most likely remove the pleasure that notices can bring to the casual reader. So, for most readers, I suggest the current model works fine. But once again, it's a question of balancing your duties to bereaved families, and to your readership as a whole. The one-line-plus-web-address solution clearly benefits the families, to the detriment of the rest of the audience.

Away from newspapers, to create your own online notices, as the writer realised, is easier than you might think. Web tools such as Blogger and Flickr are deliberately built for people to adapt to their own uses - which are inevitably be more varied and more imaginative than anything the companies themselves could come up with. They know that, and so build flexibility of purpose into the feature set.

For those less tech-minded, a number of online services already exist, from the free to the very cheap, that seem to do a pretty good job of the web death notice. Beyond that which offers, the marketplace is already crowded with sites such as Simply Divine Memories, My Memorials, Angels Online and so forth.

And of course, many people know enough about computers now to create some kind of own online memorial page themselves. These pages may not be slick, well-designed or professionally written... but, as those who work with paid notices will know, when it comes to personal tributes, that's often the point.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

poynter learns about obits.

check out this poynter centerpiece by poynter institute senior editor steve outing, who recently learned about the grim realities of getting an obit in the newspaper.

fyi: our claire gets kudos in the piece.

here's the link:

NYT & LAT lapse

This is my first posting so hope it goes well. I wanted our obit friends to note the extraordinary lapse of the NY Times and LA Times -- and probably others -- in the recent obits on Scott Peck, author of the self-help best-seller The Road Less Traveled. It was a great story because while he was dishing out all this advice about how to conduct one's life, he was a singular failure at his own (with the exception of writing best-sellers).
My lead in the Guardian was: "As the pioneer author of self-help best-sellers, psychiatrist M Scott Peck, who has died aged 69, made millions with his first book by advocating self-discipline, restraint, and responsibility -- all qualities he openly acknowledged were notably lacking in himself." The point is that Peck talked and wrote often about his addictions to cheap gin and marijuana, and his constant infidelities. He was also estranged for a time from two of his children.
Yet the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times made not a single mention of these shortcomings! Even although Peck had openly discussed them time and again. What is this -- gratuitious self-censorship? Or is there a better explanation? Unfortunaly no NYT obiturarist belongs to the association (or didn't when I last checked). But perhaps Myrna Oliver of the LAT can help here.
Note that Adam Bernstein in his lead did mention Peck's failure to follow his own advice. So if that was good enough for readers of the Washington Post, why not the folks in NYC and LA?
Regards Chris Reed.

Introductory introspection

Hello you. Here's a bit about me:

I'm a British freelance journalist and editor based in Madrid, Spain. I've written about all manner of things - from the Cuban Cricket Team to ghosts on the London Underground. One thing I've never done professionally, however, is write obituaries. Instead, I'm an obit groupie, a fan of the art and all its possibilities. You write, I read. And it's probably best if we keep it that way.

I got in contact with the International Obituary Association for a rather silly and overlong piece I was writing a year or so ago (and which will re-emerge in a new form soon). When I heard that the Association's annual meeting this year was going to be in Bath, I got in touch with Carolyn Gilbert, who foolishly asked if there was anything I'd like to talk about at the gathering.

I flew over from Spain (where I've been living since 2003), blathered on for a bit about online obits (the pages I talked about are listed here), and was lucky enough to meet many of the remarkable people who are posting on this very weblog. Bless them all and their talented cotton sock drawers.

I'll occasionally be spreading my strange, strange words over here, as and when I find obit-related milk-bottle tops that engage my magpie interest. I've also got my own weblog over here, which has been confusing Google since 2002.

Andrew Losowsky

The book of the dead

"Do we mock the dead by staying alive, by reading their names in lists, by remembering them in the world, by speculating about those we never knew? Do we perhaps take pleasure from our own survival, and even from their sad or joyous failure to do so? Bet your life we do." -- William Saroyan

I came across a curious book the other day, in a secondhand bookshop here in Madrid. It's a book called Obituaries, written by the writer William Saroyan, and published by Creative Arts Book Company in 1978. It was the last book published by him in his lifetime.

"I am a subscriber to a weekly paper called Variety. The 71st Anniversary Edition, dated January 5, 1977, arrived a few days ago, and I examined with fascination - on the last page, 164 - the names in alphabetical order in the annual feature entitled 'Necrology'. I had predicted that among those listed would be 34 men or women that I had met. I was not far off the mark: there were 28. But many of the 200 or more others listed were of course people I knew about."

And so the book goes on, told as a series of stories, some scandalous gossip and some rambling thoughts about death and life. It's clear that, at 68, Saroyan felt he hadn't long left for this world, and would use the list as an aide memoire to tell a few stories he hadn't yet told in print. Unfortunately, the list itself doesn't seem to help him much, at least at first.

"The first name on the list is Victor Alessandro, but I never had the honor. I never met him, never saw him, and therefore cannot say anything about him that might be possible I had met him... The second name is Alyce Allen, and I don't know her either. I am instantly intrigued by the spelling of each of her names, however. There must have been something in her reality that was connected in a very important way with the spelling. She may very well have meant to encourage not being instantly forgotten both during life, and after giving it up. The third name is Geza Anda, a fine name for a fine variety of reasons, but I have no idea who Geza Anda was, male or female, actor, clown or what."

Because the names appear only in the form of a list (the obits themselves appeared soon after death, scattered throughout the year), he has no real clues to go on. And so the book goes on more or less in this vein, as he hunts around for further stories. At one point, Saroyan allows the death of someone called Marion to let him talk about a more famous Marion, John Wayne.

So, not an essential read - but an interesting curio, if you come across it.

Link to listing

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Reed profile

Sorry, just saw I'm supposed to offer a brief biog. I was for 25 years the correspondent in California of the Guardian of London and before that reported for the Guardian from Portugal during the revolution in 1974-6. I started my career as a foreign correspondent in Japan where I worked for the London Sunday Times and Fortune magazine. I recently moved to Japan after a long absence (my wife Iggy is Japanese). I've been writing obits for the Guardian since 1990 and including published ones and advances, they now number in the several hundreds.
And that's enough about me. Chris Reed.

Mama's Boy In Life and Death

Does anyone else flash on Snow White's glass casket when they see this story?
PS I *know* I need to learn how to do hyperlinks.

Twin Burial For Son and Embalmed Mother

By OMER FAROOQ Associated Press Writer
HYDERABAD, India (AP) -- An English teacher and the embalmed body of his mother that he had kept at home in a glass casket for 21 years were laid to rest in twin burials in a southern Indian village over the weekend, a relative said Tuesday.
"I fulfilled the last wish of my uncle. He had told us that his mother's body should be buried only after his death," said Syed Noor, a nephew of 69-year-old Syed Abdul Ghafoor.
Hundreds of local residents attended the twin burials on Sunday in the compound of a mosque in Siddavata, a town 300 miles south of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state.
"Everybody knew that Ghafoor had kept the embalmed body of his mother at home. There were protests and complaints by local people and relatives, but he was adamant not to let it go," said M. Prabhakar Reddy, a local administrator.
In 1992, Dinesh Kumar, the top state administrator, asked Ghafoor to bury his mother's body, but he stood firm on his decision.
"This is my house and nobody has any right to intervene," Kumar recalled Ghafoor as saying.
In mid-1980s, Ghafoor taught English literature in a college in the Thanjavur district of southern Tamil Nadu state where he lived with his mother.
He divorced his wife within six months of his marriage because she had a fight with his mother, Noor said.
When his mother died, he brought the embalmed body to his village home in Siddavata and kept it in a glass casket.
"He was so eccentric that he will not allow anybody else even to look at the glass casket," Noor told The Associated Press.\Ghafoor consulted his mother even after her death.
"Before doing any thing important, he would write `yes' and `no' on two scraps of paper. Then sitting near the feet of his mother he will draw the lot and act accordingly," said Noor.

team obit

our blog team is taking shape. soon on this blogspot, you'll see blog postings from obituary writers, scholars and fans, yes, obit fans do exist.

if you're interested in joining "team obit," please boogie on over to, find my email address and let me know. please put "team obit" in the subject line of your email.

we are about to embark on a marvelous, entertaining, instructional, grim-and-grinning adventure. this will be fun!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

two things about listing survivors

first thing: a reader (of the plain dealer obit pages) called me last week to complain about the way i sometimes list surviving relatives.

i prefer to list survivors as follows:
Survivors include her husband, Otto; daughters, Rosalie Sims of Jewett, Ohio, and Adrienne Rotta of DeLand, Fla.; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

apparently, the caller likes it that way, but hates it when i vary that element by saying:
She is survived by her husband, Otto; . . etc. .

"how can you say, 'she is survived' when she's dead?" the caller complained.

i explained to the woman that it is the relatives who survive, not the deceased. then the woman totally disregarded my explanation, repeated her complaint, questioned my capacity for stupidity and hung up.

so i ask you, am i wrong in saying "survived by?" what variations do you use when listing survivors?

second thing: what do you do, when the family wants to list the dearly departed's pets as survivors?

in case you are new to blogging, as i am, and haven't grasped how to respond to a posting, click "comments" at the bottom and follow the instructions after that.