Friday, June 30, 2006

Censoring paid obituaries/death notices.

Cathy Dunphy, writer of the Toronto Star's "Lifelines" feature, wants to know about other newspapers' policies regarding the censoring of paid obits, a.k.a. death notices.

In lieu of a request for memorial donations in a paid obit, the bereaved relatives of one deceased mom asked mourners to wage a letter-writing campaign. They were unhappy about the "uneven" health care their mom had received from professional caregivers.

They ended their prepared obituary with a request that mourners send letters to the minister of health, requesting that more funds go toward providing the elderly with safe and dignified care in their final days.

Cathy's paper wouldn't run the request line because they deemed it too political.

Cathy said: "Our paper's classified people declared that this was a political statement and that our policy forbids running it. They also said that paid death notices are officially considered as editorial material. (That was a surprise.) It ran in the Globe and Mail though, which is where I saw it.

"Do you know anything about this issue? Our ombud is looking into it and asked me if I knew what other papers' policies are.

"Thanks for anything you can do."

Please share your thoughts on this one.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

USA T'other day

And, as every year, SeƱor McKie's cowboy hat gets all the attention in USA Today today, also featuring Marilyn reading from The Dead Beat. Sounds like another great conference. And onwards to the ninth! I wonder if Isabel and I could arrange it for Spain next time?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The 8th was Great!

Approximately 40 conferees (plus 7 spouses) shared obit-writing anecdotes, philosophies and tips during conference sessions, over enchiladas, ice cream or brewskis at various eateries and bars and sometimes in front of cameras wielded by 2 filmmaking crews (10 people in all) at the 8th Great Obituary Writers Conference held last weekend at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M.

I won't identify all the participants here, but I will mention the presenters.

Bob Chaundy talked about assembling obituaries - complete with news, TV and film clips, previously recorded interviews with the deceased celebrity and man-on-the-street comments - for the BBC television news. Most interesting: How Bob put together an audiovisual obit for a rarely filmed scientist who discovered, identified or insert-the-correct-past-tense-verb-here DNA.

Kay Powell, the always delightful obituaries editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, talked about the history of obits for women and encouraged us to find interesting recently deceased women to write about. Mack Lundstrom (San Jose State University professor), Cathy Dunphy (Toronto Star reporter and journalism professor) and Tom Berner (retired Pennsylvania State University professor) talked about reporting suicides in obits. Spencer Michlin, who calls himself an iconoclast from Dallas, promoted family-written-and-paid-for obits that need not meet journalistic standards of truth or style.

Tim Bullamore, freelance obit writer who now sums up lives for The Daily Telegraph of London, explained how obits, similar to the New York Times' heralded "Portraits of Grief" series for folks who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, were done for victims of terrorist attacks in London and Bali. He recommended that every newspaper have a plan for such events.

Marilyn Johnson, author of "The Dead Beat," wanted us to adopt specific terminology for the standard parts of the obituary, so we obit writers could have a common language. While we all love Marilyn and enjoyed her stories and opinions, reaction to her suggested obit lingo was mixed. Some in our number felt we should stick with common newspaper terms for story parts. Having a separate language peculiar to obits could set us back in the respect we've worked so hard and so long to gain from our newspaper colleagues, who haven't always regarded obit writing as real journalism. Some conferees pointed out that "tombstone," Marilyn's term for the phrase in which we sum up a person's life, is what some of us call details - such as birth and death dates - that show up in an obit info box. During the Q&A, the word "furniture," which Mack Lundstrom uses for the mandatory list of survivors and funeral services that bog down our storytelling efforts, was mentioned. Interestingly, Marilyn's "tombstone" and Mack's "furniture" were used repeatedly during discussions throughout the conference.

Stephen Miller, obits editor at the New York Sun and a co-author (with me - Alana Baranick - and Jim Sheeler) of "Life on the Death Beat," talked about the only obit that won a Pulitzer Prize, appropriately for "deadline" reporting, and the amazing life of that Pulitzer-winning reporter, who is still living and writing under a different name.

Jim Sheeler, our co-author and a Rocky Mountain News general assignment reporter who sometimes pens obits, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing - but not for an obit. He was the star of the 8th Great show. As usual, we sniffled through his heartstrings-tugging stories about military personnel who died too young. Jim himself got choked up when International Association of Obituarists founder and conference diva Carolyn Gilbert inducted him into the IAO Hall of Fame.

Betty Abah, a journalist from Nigeria and an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow with Sheeler's Rocky Mountain News, gave an impassioned presentation titled "Holding the Corrupt Dead Accountable, Celebrating the Wretched of the Earth: A Case for Obit Writing in Africa."

Two other conference newcomers, neither of whom write obits but whose work involves gathering facts about people's lives, also gave presentations.

EllynAnne Geisel, whose thick North Carolina accent has not been diluted after living for decades in Pueblo, Colo., told us some interesting stories about people she learned about while working on "The Apron Book," her aptly titled book about - you guessed it - aprons.

Pam Vetter, a former TV reporter, told us about her work as a funeral celebrant. She prepares and conducts funeral services and eulogies for folks who don't want formal religious rites. She's kind of like the funeral-arranging version of a wedding planner.

Andrew McKie wrapped up the conference with a general talk about the importance of writing obits. I really liked this. I hope future conferences end with similar tie-up-the-loose-ends sessions, led by veteran obit writers, with questions and comments from the conferees.

Carolyn told us to circle June 14-16 on the 2007 calendar for the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference, but she hasn't decided on the location. She mentioned three potential sites, but didn't identify them to us. She said she will consult with a few IAO members before making a decision.

I for one hope the 9th Great is not in Las Vegas, N.M., again. I'd like a change of scenery.

But I also hope it's not in Israel, which was mentioned last year as a possibility for 2007. If it's held overseas, I'll have to miss it. I can't afford the expense or the time for such a trip.

Please post your comments about the 8th and 9th Great Obituary Writers Conferences.

The internet and the future of death

Sadly, I couldn't make it to this year's Obituary Writers' Conference, and due to lack of internet and lack of time, I didn't even manage to get my essay sent in time to make it into the brochure (sorry Carolyn!). Did you all have fun? Did you miss me?

Anyway, due to the wonders of the interwebnet, I can post my slightly flabby piece on here for you all. It's a development of a piece I wrote not long ago about the objects we leave behind. And hopefully it might get a few people thinking.

All thoughts, replies, comments gratefully perceived.


The internet and the future of death

Within three generations, people start to disappear.

A century and a half from now, there will be no-one who remembers first-hand what anyone now living was like. They will exist as faint traces from the past, appearing only randomly in whatever mementoes journalism, sheer luck and bureaucratic documents create.

What remains in your home now from 1856? Or even 1906? If you’re lucky, perhaps a pile of faded photographs, a few sticks of furniture, the detritus of heirloom – medals, coils, lace tablecloths. Personal correspondence, wrapped in string or ribbon; handwritten names inside the front covers of books; savings books, registered at long-disappeared addresses, in denominations that no longer exist.

And then there is the official, where names are inscribed and given wider context by an official seal. Public records of birth, marriage, divorce and death. Housing deeds. Wills and testaments. Changes of name. Royally bestowed honours. Formations and cessations of companies. Planning permission. Just the facts, on the record, and names there for anyone who wants to find them. It’s not our most important life moments that live on – it’s the ones that are most legally significant. And then there's the added colour of self-appointed officialdom. Those publications that, by common consent, offer their own barometers of societal participation. The OED. The Guinness Book of Records. Who's Who. Hansard. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wisden. Insert your own cultural equivalent here.

What does this have to do with obituaries? An awful lot, as the nature of this detritus is changing – and what it is changing to will have an enormous impact on the research methods of the next generation of obituary writers.

Firstly, we don't tend to hang onto useful objects for as long as our great-grandfathers did - increased commerce, marketing and wealth have helped our tastes to change, quickly and almost constantly. Furniture lasts perhaps ten years, not generations. The few objects that will remain from us are rarely useful as anything but emotive hand-me-downs.

Secondly, who is to say that our legacy will exist through physical objects? Think of your grandmother’s yellowing love letters, your childhood photographs – or those of your subjects, that have helped you in your research. Who now aged under 30 handwrites a letter? How often do digital photos actually get printed? (And even when they are, modern inks and papers are known to be less durable.) Where once we wrote, now we make phone calls, where meaningful words and significant moments vanish along the line and into the ether as suddenly as they are called into existence.

Will any of our correspondence, our photography, our private, tender moments be available for our grandchildren? Will emails last that long? And will they even be available to journalists of today, as passwords and computer failure keep us from accessing the finer details of their lives. As more objects, from books to photographs, become virtual, so does the quantity of data at our disposal.

If we do assume the constancy of data (groups like the internet archive are fighting to store as much as they can), then what are the consequences of this? The obituarists and, in turn, our great-grandchildren will read our blogs and our messageboard postings, see our online photo streams and watch our videocasts, as the archived caches of Google Past make it into classrooms and universities.

The concept of webpage as historical document is a sobering one. Self-promotion and overexaggeration in the online public arenas are not new phenomena, but for the first time, it is not our carefully chosen words but the wider, poorly phrased public arena that will outlast us. Finding out usernames, working out passwords, scraping antique hard drives for all but useless personal information will become a socially useful art in itself. Hackaeologists will appear as the new society’s historians.

And who will the virtual obituarists be? Online social networks are already changing the nature of friendships, of who your neighbour is and how people know each other. A familiar face around town is just as likely to be a familiar face in the online group. It can surely only be a matter of time before MySpace or LiveJournal appoints its own obituary professional, sensitive to the unique bonds that form over time in virtual public spaces, talking not to relatives but friends about their memories of people they have never met, on the other side of the globe. One obituary for meatspace, one for virtual space. I suspect that the people they will document may often appear markedly different in each.

Just as personal relationships and what we understand of as society is changing thanks to the internet, so will personal histories and obituary writing. Already, an online world called Second Life has its own embedded journalist, whose weblog is seen as the communty’s newspaper. And where there are communities and there’s a newspaper, there’s always a need for well-written, well-researched obituaries. The skills and sensibilities of their writers will be the same, but the tools markedly different.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fictional obit writers on film and in print

In the movie, "Closer," actor Jude Law portrays an obituary writer for a London newspaper. I was infuriated when his character told Natalie Portman's that obit writing is the Siberia of journalism.

I laughed at the opening scene of "Perfect" in which John Travolta is a fledgling reporter and reluctant obit writer. I got a kick out of his phone interview with a bereaved relative, as he asked for the name of the funeral home, the deceased's age and the cause of death. When he begged his editor to get him off obit duty and got his wish, I lost interest in the film.

Both Jeremy Piven in "Serendipity" and Jennifer Aniston in "Rumor Has It" are described as obit writers for the New York Times. Piven's character is shown as a reporter who writes obits, but I believe Aniston's character would actually be a person who takes obit info from funeral homes and families for the classified advertising department - basically, a clerk-typist, not a journalist.

Fictional obit writers usually are portrayed in movies (and in books, like Carl Hiaasen's "Basket Case" and Porter Shreve's "The Obituary Writer") as unfortunate souls who are stuck with the dirtiest job in the newsroom. The writers of these screenplays and books are using the term "obit writer" as a synonym for "loser." To them, the obit writer represents as person who is in a dead-end job, who yearns for some higher calling, who is ready for a change.

For some reporters, this may be true. To the public, this is probably the perception. But it's not always the case. Many of us regard our jobs as the best in the newsroom.

We love writing about the dead. We're not writing about death. We're writing about lives. (FYI: Many of us, who love what we do, will attend the 8th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Las Vegas, N.M., June 15-17. For details go to

What other movies, books, TV shows or whatever include obit-writing characters? How were they portrayed? What did you think about them?