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 Funeral Lady said...

I thank everyone who attended and participated in commentary at the Obituary Conference! I learned so much from the writers who shared their ideas... Although what I write for eulogies is different from an obituary, we are both doing the same thing. We are celebrating lives by sharing life stories. Some of the smallest stories, in the funeral services I write and conduct, have also been the most powerful stories. We have so much to learn from someone's life - it is important to continue sharing stories in every forum possible! All my best, Pam.

Andrew Losowsky said...

I agree, Alana - let's keep the Conference moving around. Did anyone have any suggestions for the next one?

Alana Baranick said...

I'm sure everyone has suggestions for the site of the 9th Great, Andrew. My suggestion would be Cleveland, Ohio, but I'm certain it's not on Carolyn's short list.

Be watching for Carolyn to send a questionnaire as she considers her next step.

R. Thomas Berner said...

We could meet in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebration, but the dates don't work. So I vote for Banff.

Alana Baranick said...

Banff? As in Alberta, Canada? Hey! That's less than 30 miles from Deadman's Flats!

Better yet. How about Deadwood, S.D.? They celebrate Wild Bill Hickock Days on the same weekend that we celebrate the art of summing up lives.

Or, for those who prefer a big city atmosphere, we could go to Houston, Texas, and visit the National Museum of Funeral History.

Anonymous said...

Nice recap, Alana. By the way,
I'm changing the term for the part of the obituary that gives the cause of death from "the bad news" to "the death sentence." Thanks!