Saturday, December 30, 2006

My New Year's resolution for 2007

I, Alana Baranick, keeper of this blog, do resolve to keep the "obituary forum" blog more current by posting new items more often and by bugging my fellow grimsters to do the same.

But before I start trying to hold true to that resolution, I plan to post a succession of year-end items that I've been meaning to post over the last month or more. And I invite my obit-writing and obit-loving friends to do the same.

Have a wonderful, prosperous and enjoyable 2007.

They come in 3s.

The proverbial "they" say that deaths come in threes.

That's probably because "they" are aware of two newsmakers, two colleagues, two relatives or any two people, whom they have known or heard about, who may or may not be connected to them in some way, who have died on the same day or within a short time of one another.

Then they wait for the third shoe to drop, which is peculiar when you think about it, since most of us wear only two shoes at a time.

They're reading the obit pages. They're watching the cable news crawls more closely. They get up early to watch morning television shows in case someone famous died overnight. Surely they'll find a third decedent to complete the hat trick.

On Christmas, James Brown, internationally recognized as the Godfather of Soul, died. His music is, as they say, is part of the soundtrack of our lives. He influenced and will continue to influence generations of musicians and genres of music that go way beyond R&B, funk and rock 'n' roll.

Some of his less-than-steller offstage behavior landed him in court and/or jail, but that didn't diminish our affection for him. After listening to a James Brown song or seeing him perform, we could always say, "I feel good!"

His farewell funeral tour, which included stops at memorial musical-, preaching- and love-fests at the Apollo Theater in New York City, a small church in North Augusta, N.C., and James Brown Arena in Augusta, Ga., was barely announced when along comes Ford.

Gerald Ford, who had a short stint as president of the United States, died Tuesday, Dec. 26.

They're calling Ford "the accidental president." Appointed, never elected to national office. He landed in the White House on the support of what in the big picture amounted to only a handful of Michigan voters and by virtue of, well, his virtue.

His reputation as a good guy, an honest man and agreeable Congressman tipped the scale in the decision of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, in selecting him to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president. And that, of course, automatically made him president when Nixon resigned as president.

Like Brown, Ford's funerary events are taking place at several venues: in Palm Desert, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unlike Brown with his offstage behavior and jail time, Ford upset a lot of people by pardoning Nixon for crimes he may have committed in office. Ford himself later got a pardon of sorts for granting the Nixon pardon in the form of a Profiles in Courage award from the Kennedy clan.

We'd been waiting for the death of the 93-year-old ex-president, whose frequent hospital visits in recent years had newspaper editors ready to stop the presses. But we were stunned when the 73-year-old hardest-working man in show business died.

As happens after just about every pair of notable deaths, I speculated with friends and family on "Who will be the third?"

Although we could mention elderly and/or ailing newsmakers from the United States and, oh, I don't know, maybe Cuba, in our private musings about "The Third," we talked about No. 3 being someone different from Ford and Brown. Maybe someone on a lesser plane of fame, significance. Maybe female. Younger than those we might expect. Possibly one of those tabloid celebrities, whose contributions to the world, if any, will quickly be forgotten.

Boy! Were we wrong! Out there in plain sight, a death sentence (you'll excuse the expression) hanging over his head. I never would have thought that Saddam Hussein would seemingly come out of nowhere to catapult to No. 3 on death charts. But he did. Dec. 29. Executed. Hanged. For crimes against humanity.

As eulogies, memorial events and our mourning for Gerald Ford and James Brown continue, reporters and pundits will remind us of the life that Saddam Hussein lived and the countless lives he ruined.

That's a good thing - reminding us. I'm glad that disturbing images of torture and murder committed under SH's regime in Iraq are shown on TV while assorted voices discuss his life and the significance of his death.

We should not forget. As "they" also say: Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Journalism of Death

The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento, Calif., has decided to give obituaries a higher priority.

According to the paper's public editor Armando Acuña, The Bee is currently publishing a local news obit nearly every day. Recent features include a homeless man, a flood control expert, a pilot who ferried governors around the state and an organist.

These well-written obits are not only informative, they're also popular with readers. They're "consistently among the highest read items on the paper's Web site," Acuña said.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Adam B. and his weekly radio gig

Every Sunday at around 11:40 a.m., Adam Bernstein, deputy obituaries editor for The Washington Post, gets 10 minutes of radio airtime to talk about the lives of people who died during the previous week.

He gets his sixth-of-an-hour on Bob Levey's Sunday morning show, which is accessible via the Internet at Washington Post Radio.

This morning, Adam talked with Bob about Peter Boyle ("Young Frankenstein" and "Everybody Loves Raymond") and Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame).

Adam mentioned some things about these men that didn't make it into the published obits.

It was short, but sweet. Tune in next time.

Nigel Starck's "Life After Death"

Just in time for Insert-appropriate-winter-holiday-here, I received a copy of "Life After Death" by Nigel Starck, Australia's and possibly the world's greatest authority on obituaries in English-language newspapers.

His book was my gift to myself.

I thought I could read the entire book in a couple of days and post a complete report for you here. But such is not the case. Like a ravenous guest at a buffet dinner, I devoured samples from each chapter much faster than my brain could digest the text.

I'll have to read it again more slowly and thoroughly, but that won't stop me from giving a short report now.

In his book, Nigel writes about the history and development of obits from 1622 to modern times. He talks about various styles of obits, how lives and deaths are portrayed in print and such issues as ethics and judgement. He includes many of his all-time favorite obits.

Much of the information is familiar to those of us who have attended Carolyn Gilbert's Great Obituary Writers Conferences and to readers and contributors to this Obituary Forum blog.

We've heard Nigel give presentations on the subject during the years in which he traveled throughout the United States, United Kingdom and, of course, Australia conducting research for his doctoral thesis on obituary and newspaper practice.

He cites many of us, the obits we've written, books and other articles we've penned, remarks we've made at conference sessions and in casual conversation. Tom Hobbs, our favorite university librarian, gets a special nod for his contributions as a researcher.

The tone of "Life After Death" reflects the personality of its author. Scholarly, charming, amusing and fun.

To order "Life After Death," click the "Life on the Death Beat" image at the top of the sidebar on the right. It will take you to a page with links to Nigel's and several other obit-related books.

Newer version of the obituary forum blog

Attention, fellow obit bloggers.

Our blogger hosts have done some technical stuff that I don't completely understand yet. It has something to do with switching to Blogger in beta. You can go to blogger help to read about this new development. I welcome your explanations - in layman's terms - of what this all means.

Apparently, as the administrator of this team blog, I will be required at some point to switch to the newer version. When I do that, you may not be able to post items immediately. You may have to go through the registration process all over again.

If this happens, please tell me about it, so we can fix things.

I hope to understand this stuff before the end of 2006 and make the switch for 2007.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006