Sunday, December 30, 2007

Name that death beat organization

As you may know from reading previous blog items, a new organization is being established for people who make their living writing about the dead.

The question arises: What will be the name of that organization?

Suggestions so far include:
1. Professional Obituary Writers;
2. Professional Obituary Writers Society;
3. Professional Obituary Writers Organization;
4. The Society of Professional Obituarists;
5. Society of Obituary Journalists.

And that's just for starters. Do you have a preference among these or a moniker suggestion of your own?

TV tries to mimic Sheeler's "Final Salute"

The CBS Sunday Morning magazine program featured a segment called "The Fallen" on Dec. 30 as an end-of-the-year remembrance of servicemen and -women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007.

From the beginning, it was clear that this was a recycling of reporter (and former obituary writer) Jim Sheeler's and photographer Todd Heisler's 2006 Pulitzer-winning "Final Salute", the tear-jerking, heart-tugging feature which was published in the Rocky Mountain News in 2005.

First, they showed Heisler's memorable photo of passengers' faces in the windows of a parked airplane as a flag-draped coffin is being carried out of the plane's belly.

Then the CBS newsman David Martin interviewed Steve Beck, the Marine whose job it was to knock on doors of the unsuspecting soon-to-be-bereaved, the Marine whom Jim and Todd shadowed in order to get the story.

Martin also interviewed Melissa Givens, a widow whom Jim probably first interviewed in 2003 after her husband, Jesse, drowned in a tank in the desert. Check Jim's story from March 19, 2004: "The lifetime gift of Pfc. Givens."

It was nice to see images I recognized and hear about what's happened to Beck - then Maj. Beck, now Lt. Col. Beck - and the widow Givens since Jim wrote about them.

But even with the weeping widow and the Marine saying he'll never forget the fallen or their families, the TV version lacked the emotional impact of Jim's words and all of Todd's photos.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hugh Massingberd, father of contemporary British obits

Hugh Massingberd, obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph of London from 1986 to 1994, turned the pomp and solemnity of traditional tributes for the recently deceased into humorous, candid and sometimes vicious profiles of the dearly departed.

Massingberd died Dec. 25, 2007, and quickly became the subject for the Telegraph's featured obit.

In his obit, Massingberd was quoted as saying of his craft:
"I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch." Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

Per the Telegraph story, when Massingberd took over the obits desk:
Immediately, Telegraph readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that "a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists".

A tip of the hat and undying thanks to the master from fellow obit writers everywhere.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Legal physician-assisted suicide, topic for Portland workshop

Don Colburn, an Oregonian reporter (and poet) who has extensively covered Oregon's Death with Dignity Act (also known as physician-assisted suicide), will be giving a presentation at the professional obituary writers workshop to be held in Portland, Ore., May 8-11.

Colburn will also be showing a multimedia presentation that chronicles the actual physician-assisted suicide, at which he was present, of a terminally ill Oregonian staff member.

Colburn will be available for questions about the law in Oregon, the only U.S. state that has legalized suicide with certain restrictions.

Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute lauded The Oregonian for its coverage of this sensitive and controversial issue on "Al's Morning Meeting" page nearly two years ago.

This workshop will kick off a discussion on coverage of suicides in writing obituaries.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Professional Obituary Writers Workshop: Featuring Author of "A Writer's Coach"

The Oregonian's nationally known writing coach, author and soon-to-be-retired editor at large, Jack R. Hart, is scheduled to do a writing workshop/intensive on May 10 at the professional obituary writers' workshop organized by Amy Starke and Joan Harvey at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

Jack edited Amy's Life Stories for 9 months in between permanent editors, and coached Tom Hallman, Richard Read, and others to Pulitzer Prizes.

And that's not all.

In its author biography for Jack, the Niemann Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University says:
Jack Hart, a managing editor at The Oregonian, has coached writing in newsrooms throughout the English-speaking world. He has edited two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories (and contributed editing to a third). He has also edited winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Writing Awards, the Ernie Pyle Award, the Scripps Howard business-writing award, The Overseas Press ClubAwards, the Headliners awards and the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award. He has taught at five universities, The Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute.

Stu Warner, the writing coach at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, has been teaching staff writers (myself included) from Jack's book, "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words that Work."

Kudos to Amy and Joan for getting the writing experts' expert to speak to obit writers like us at their workshop.

Remember, more details on the workshop will be posted here as they become available.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jack Frost, no longer nipping at your nose

Among the obituaries in the Roseburg News Review in Roseburg, Ore., on April 24, 2007, was the story of the late Jack Frost.

I thought it was cool (pun intended) that Jack W. Frost, who died at the age of 82, served with the Army in Sitka, Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands near the end of World War II.

But I was surprised to see that Jack's parents gave him that wintry moniker. After all, his dad's name was Jack A. Frost.

I thought, "Didn't his dad know he'd be kidded about his name all his life?"

It's one of those things that we assume has been around forever.

While it's true in this case that the character Jack Frost has its roots in folklore that predated the modern Jack W. Frost's 1924 birthdate, I'm not certain that folks back then would have had the same kind of reaction to his name that I did.

I know Jack Frost because of Mel Torme's "A Christmas Song" with the lyric, "Jack Frost nipping at your nose."

My kids (grown men now, I should point out) would know Jack Frost from those Claymation stories about Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus that are shown on TV during the winter holiday season.

Names - and words, in general - can mean different things to people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and interests and at different times in our history.

Deep thoughts on a snowy weekend in my neck of the woods.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Professional Obituary Writers Organization

The workshop for professional obituary writers in Portland, Ore., mentioned in a previous blog item, is designed for a specific audience: Folks who make their living by writing obits.

It is not intended to replace the International Association of Obituarists' annual Great Obituary Writers Conference, which is open to anyone who loves stories about the lives of the dearly departed.

Likewise, an organization for professional obituary writers that is being formed is not intended to replace the IAO, but to serve the needs of journalists on the death beat.

An advisory committee for the new group will consider various points of view and make initial decisions on behalf of all the obit pros to get the organization off the ground, obtain not-for-profit status and set up its own Web site. (Details to come as they are available.)

At some point, the membership will elect a board of directors and officers. When and how that will happen is up to the advisory committee to decide.

Comments on the formation of this group are welcome. Stay tuned to this Obituary Forum blog for the developing story.

FYI: The fledgling organization is not in charge of the Portland conference. That is strictly the brainchild of the folks from The Oregonian.

Workshop for Professional Obituary Writers in Portland, Oregon

Amy Starke and Joan Harvey of The Oregonian are planning a training workshop to help professional obit writers enhance their skills. The workshop will be held May 8-11, 2008, in Portland, Oregon.

The Oregonian has agreed to make its conference rooms available for workshop sessions.

"The Oregonian as you may know is the envy of many other newspapers for the
amount of space it devotes to obituaries." the two Oregonian obit writers boast.

And it's true. The paper runs little obits on just about everyone in the Portland circulation area.

Naturally, the deaths of newsmakers get published. But probably the most wonderful obits are the Life Stories, longer feature obits about everyday people, that are fascinating - even to readers who never knew the deceased.

With the workshops, Amy and Joan hope to address such topics as interviewing skills, deep historical/courts and cops research, multimedia skills, focusing and writing tight, approaches to candor in obituaries.

The workshop will be open only to professional obit writers.

Of course, you'll want to know the background of the brains behind the Portland workshop.

Amy Martinez Starke, a newspaper journalist for the past 30 years, has spent the last 16 years at The Oregonian. The Life Story writer (for nearly five years) has written more than 600 story-length obituaries, most of them feature obituaries about ordinary people. Amy has experience in copy editing, layout and wire editing in addition to reporting. She previously worked at The Orange County Register and for small papers in Washington, D.C., and Texas.

Joan Harvey has been writing obits for The Oregonian for the past 10 years. Before taking 30 years off to raise five children, she was a general-assignment reporter and wrote social news for The Oregonian. During her hiatus, she was a freelance food and travel writer for The Oregonian and writer and editor for Portland-area African-American and Jewish newspapers.

Workshop details will be posted on this blog as they become available. Your comments are welcome.

(FYI: This event is not intended to compete with the annual Great Obituary Writers International Conference, which is open to anyone who loves obits. (The 10th Great is scheduled for Toronto, Ontario, June 12-14, 2008.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Talk about God being your assignment editor

Wally Guenther, my partner-in-grim at Cleveland's Plain Dealer, was reading through faxes, emails and death notices in search of his obit subject for Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, when his cubicle mate, Brian Albrecht, suggested he do an obituary for Vincent Fredrick.

Fredrick, 82, had survived two B-17 bomber crashes in Europe during World War II.

He kept a diary of his 35 bombing missions. It was published into a book that was titled "Satan's Lady" after the bomber on which he flew his last 24 missions.

How did Brian know about this guy?

Well, Brian is the go-to guy at the PD for stories about WW2 and the military. He came to work Monday with an interview scheduled at lunchtime with - you guessed it - Vincent Fredrick.

When he called to make sure the appointment was still on, he was told that the man died Friday. So Wally ended up interviewing Fredrick's family.

On top of that, Brian handed information to me that he had received during the summer about another WW2 vet, who had written a memoir of his wartime experiences for his grandchildren.

Yep! He's gone too. Died Nov. 1.

Guess whose "life story" I'm working on this week!

The late Richard Pearson, who was obits editor at The Washington Post, used to say of choosing subjects for obits, "God is my assignment editor." Kay Powell, obits editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and many other obit writers have adopted this phrase as their own.

Yes, God is my assignment editor too. But sometimes he passes that assignment to me through an intermediary, like Brian.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Log Cabin Republican in Kucinich Land

Since I started writing "A Life Story," my weekly obituary feature for The Plain Dealer, I've been focused on celebrating the diversity of the people of Northeast Ohio.

My purpose is to introduce readers to folks in their communities, whom they probably didn't know, and to lifestyles and cultures that may be unfamiliar to them.

Black, white. From places as different as Sri Lanka and Slovakia. Sons of Italy and Daughters of the American Revolution. Old, young. Male, female.

I haven't found a transgender subject yet.

I have written about some dearly departed gays and lesbians, but I've had to be careful what I wrote. I mean, how can you say that a person was gay, when his partner denies it? And what do you do when the partner is cool with it, but the elderly mother and the siblings are in denial?

It's not that I want a "gay" headline or to spell out details about the person's sexual practices. I simply want to write stories about everyday people, who happen to be gay. They're not creatures, who came from outer space or are headed for hell. They're your neighbors, your grocers, your teachers.

Finally, this week I got to write a story about a Log Cabin Republican, who lived in an extremely liberal-leaning neighborhood.

Stanley Mason didn't have a closeted boyfriend or secretive relatives to hinder my report. He was as open about being gay as he was of being a Republican in an area that is likely to vote for native son Dennis Kucinich for president.

He was simply his own person.

Stanley spoke often of growing up with open-minded relatives - including several who were gay. He told friends that he was surprised at the large number of gays who served with him in the military in the Korean War. Plus, he belonged to a gay seniors group.

I was so pleased that I got to include this stuff in his obit, along with his civic activism, love of target-shooting - wearing nothing but a thong - and his community pride.

It's too bad that the pictures that were printed with the story don't show up with the online version. You should have seen the photo of bald-headed, white-bearded Stanley sitting on Santa Claus' lap.

Friday, November 30, 2007

From Death to Birth

"You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being framed." --Plato

Congratulations to Adam Bernstein, rock star obit writer for The Washington Post. On November 23, he became the father of Santiago Walker Bernstein, a healthy 7 lb.-5 oz. baby boy.

(Side note to Adam: Your son and I share the same natal day, and the same moniker. As such I offer this small bit of advice for his future: "Breathe, live, love and inspire.")

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Drag and paramilitary honours

"Sammy Duddy was a colourful Belfast character who combined membership of one of the city's most lethal paramilitary groups with a career as "Samantha", a highly suggestive drag act."

"On one occasion, Duddy's home was attacked with a pipe bomb, while on another shots were fired into it. While he was uninjured, his pet chihuahua, Bambi, was hit by gunfire and died."

Now there's a unique one. By the way, McKie Watch: Spotted on the BBC's Front Row podcast, still can be downloaded till Friday, talking about killing off people early and the dangers of Wikipedia.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Must-see TV for obit writers

Thomas Lynch, the Michigan funeral director and incredibly talented award-winning writer, will be featured on PBS' "Frontline" Tuesday, Oct. 30.

Here's part of the PBS press release. For the rest, click the next word:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007, on PBS (check local listings).

“Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.
Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned ...
I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes ... I am the only undertaker in this town.”
-- Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch, 58, is a writer and a poet. He's also a funeral director in a small town in central Michigan where he and his family have cared for the dead -- and the living -- for three generations. For the first time, Lynch agreed to allow cameras inside Lynch & Sons, giving FRONTLINE producers Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor rare, behind-the-scenes access -- from funeral arrangements to the embalming room -- to the Lynches' world in The Undertaking, airing Tuesday, October 30, 2007, at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

In his critically acclaimed book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, excerpted in this film, Lynch chronicles a life spent in the presence of the dead.

"We have in some ways become estranged from death and the dead," Lynch believes. "We're among the first couple generations for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional. And I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large."

The Lynch family believes that the rituals of a funeral are more than mere formalities. "Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters," Lynch contends. "A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be."

. . . For Lynch and his family, their business has always been about more than just caring for the dead. "What I've written is that while the dead don't care, the dead matter," Lynch explains. "The dead matter to the living. In accompanying the dead, getting them where they need to go, we get where we need to be -- to the edge of that oblivion and then returned to life with the certain knowledge that life has changed."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Obituary writers get slammed for Wikipedia use

Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's very, very impressive - unlike those obituary writers writes the Observer. Among those who made the mistake was the obit writer of The Times. Bit of an amateur mistake - trusting Wikipedia rather than using it as a research tool to find evidence or otherwise elsewhere, and one which Wikipedia itself discourages - and not one any of our esteemed crowd would make, I'm sure. A bit harsh to blame all Wikipedia's ills on the obit writers, however.

Online learning: Obituary writing

The Poynter Institute, regarded by newspaper wizards as the Hogwarts of journalism, is offering an obituary writing course through its online learning arm, NewsU.

It costs nothing to register as a NewsU member/client/student or to take the obits course.

Most of the lessons come from "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers" by Alana Baranick (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio), Jim Sheeler (Rocky Mountain News) and Stephen Miller (Wall Street Journal, New York Sun).

Alana (that would be me) is your obit-writing instructor.

Check it out at:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dead issue

I confess, I haven't read through all of the information that MSN posted today (Sept. 24, 2007) under the teaser headline: Planning a funeral for $800 or less.

And I don't know enough about these subjects to say authoritatively that the writers of this and related articles on funerals, wills, living wills and estate planning (whose links are provided on the same page) know what they're talking about.

But I expect that folks, who are interested in such death-related issues, could learn something from this site.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bob Chaundy Explains the Death Beat

In a fitting farewell, Chaundy writes:

The obituarist is often characterised as a kind of media vulture hovering over its prey, waiting for it to die. "Grim Reaper" and "Doctor Death" are the kind of sobriquets attributed to our like. A colleague of mine once remarked, "When Bob says 'How are you?' it's a loaded question."

But I had been disabusing my neighbour the previous evening of the notion of there being anything macabre about working on obituaries. Obits are about life, not death. Not for us the "slap and clammy slither of the circumscribing clay", as my former colleague Andrew Marr, in Heaney-esque mode, once put it. Death is merely the pretext, dealt with on the front page, perhaps, or in the case of TV, in the newsreader's introduction.

Chaundy recently left the BBC after 18 years heading the corporation's news obituaries unit.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Continuing Saga of an Advance Obit

This is a story of technological mishaps, false alarms, political upheaval and an 8,000-word article that was started six years ago and still hasn't seen publication. It is the complex tale of an obit. Fidel Castro's obit. And despite rumors to the contrary, the former leader of Cuba is still alive. As for his pre-written obit, it remains inside a reporter's briefcase.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Outing the Dead

Would you ever "out" someone in an obituary? Why or why not?

Also, if the deceased is public about his/her sexual preference, would you publish the name of a same-sex partner in the survivor list?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Headlines for dead lines online

"A dash of humor with the ricotta."

That's the headline for the feature obit that I wrote for Jim Indriolo that appeared in the print version of The Plain Dealer on Monday, July 23, 2007.

It's a terrific headline for "A Life Story" about a genial, witty man, who made his living by selling Italian cheese to small grocery stores in Cleveland's Italian neighborhoods.

But that headline does not appear on the online version of the same story. "A dash of humor with the ricotta" becomes "A life story: Jim Indriolo, good-natured deliveryman."

Boring, boring, boring.

The generic label wasn't an oversight or misstep, as I had thought. It was intentional.

My editor tells me that headlines for all stories in our online edition are being rewritten, when necessary, to accommodate Google searches.

In this case, folks looking for "Jim Indriolo" would get a Google hit more quickly, because his name is in the head, not just in the story.

The same reasoning applies to searches for my weekly "A Life Story" feature.

I'm not sure why anyone would do a search for "good-natured" or "deliveryman" or "good-natured deliveryman," but you never know.

Both the print and online editions of Indriolo's story show this subhead: "He delivered cheese in Italian neighborhoods for 3 decades." That's searchable in any case.

I do understand the need to be search-friendly. And I can't assume ownership for this or any other cleverly written, purposely worded headline. But I mourn the loss of such well-thought-out prose for the sake of boosting the number of hits a story receives.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thieves chose targets based on announced funeral times

3 accused of targeting victims through obits
Associated Press Writer
328 words
17 July 2007
(c) 2007. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A multistate investigation led to the arrest of three men suspected of using information in published obituaries to burglarize homes while grieving families attend services, Washoe County sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

Sheriff Mike Haley called the burglaries a "horrific type of crime" targeting the elderly when they are most vulnerable.

Besides stealing tens of thousands of dollars in collectibles, jewelry, guns, heirlooms and silver dinnerware, the suspects inflicted added emotional turmoil by ransacking the homes, detectives said.

In some cases, credits cards belonging to the deceased were stolen and used days later.

Investigators believe Richard Charles Hery, 19, was a key player in at least seven such break-ins that occurred in southwest Reno from early April through May. They said six other similar burglaries are under investigation, and there could be more.

Hery was arrested June 6 in Tucson.

Two others are charged in connection with the case, and detectives are trying to determine if they took part in carrying out the crimes.

Michael Drey was arrested May 17 for assault and rebooked on drug and stolen property charges while jailed. Justin Wayne Ford, 51, was arrested Monday on an unrelated warrant and possession of stolen property.

Authorities said all three have ties to the Reno area.

Investigators also have talked to a woman and her teenage daughter in Tucson about the case.

In each instance, Haley said bandits would read obituaries published in the newspaper, looking for clues about a person's interests to select their targets.

For example, noting someone was an avid hunter signals there are probably guns in the home, Haley said.

Detectives wouldn't reveal what information led them to focus on Hery. But they tracked him to Salt Lake City before he traveled to Arizona. He was arrested there after police were tipped that he was planning similar crimes in Tucson, Haley said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dead "Dead Head"

In my weekly Plain Dealer obituary feature, "A Life Story," I try to introduce readers in the Cleveland area to Northeast Ohioans they probably never got to know.

I strive to maintain diversity by choosing subjects of various ages, races, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, counties in our circulation area, fields of work and lifestyles.

Keeping it fresh can be a challenge. So when I saw a death notice for Tim "Mowgli" Princic, a dreadlock-coiffed 30-year-old with an abiding appreciation of the Grateful Dead, I felt I needed to do his story. After all, how many opportunities do you get to write about recently deceased Dead Heads?

I have to admit, I was somewhat misled from the get-go. I told one of his relatives that, if I did the story, I would have to explain why he was dead. He was only 30.

I initially feared he might have died of a drug overdose or took his own life. If I had been told the full story of how he died, I probably would have passed on doing it, realizing it could create problems.

I don't recall how it was explained, but I came away believing that Mowgli was in an unfortunate car crash while on his way home from visiting his parents.

It turned out that it was an unfortunate car crash, but it happened while he was leaving a tavern, where he had been partying with friends. Folks I spoke with believed he had intended to crash at a nearby friend's place for the night. Instead, he crashed into a utility pole and died.

I didn't want my special feature to turn into a police report. Of course, I did speak with the spokesman for the police department a couple of days before Mowgli's story was published. At that time, toxicology reports had not come back. So I couldn't state with certainty that Mowgli had been driving drunk, even though that's what police and most everyone else believed.

I tried to present the death sentence in the same tone as the rest of the story of Mowgli's brief free-spirited life.

I started the story as follows: Tim Princic paid for trips and tickets to Grateful Dead shows with bread, butter and American cheese.

The Akron resident, known to many as "Mowgli," made grilled cheese sandwiches on a small propane stove that he kept in his Volkswagen bus or whatever vehicle he was driving.

Princic, who died May 20 at age 30, sold the dollar-a-pop manna to fellow Deadheads (Grateful Dead fans) in an area of the parking lot designated as "Shakedown Street" after the Grateful Dead song and album of the same name.

I wanted to keep the reader engaged in the story. So I didn't say how Mowgli died until later.

I wondered how someone his age could have followed the Dead from venue to venue with a multitude of nomadic disciples, when he was only around 18, when Jerry Garcia, the leader of the band, died.

"At 17, his wandering feet got the better of him," said his mother, Terry. "He and some friends took off for California. His first trip across country and, I believe, where he found his love for the Deadhead community."

Mowgli went on to follow the remnants of the Grateful Dead - its members' spin-off acts - and Dead tribute bands.

The experience of traveling on a wing and a prayer in a Volkswagen bus, which kept breaking down, led to Mowgli's becoming a VW mechanic.

The owner of the garage where Mowgli worked said: "He wanted to learn the old Volkswagens, which I know all about -- the old '60s and '70s era -- which I thought was kind of cool. He was like a free bird."

That's where I seized my chance to talk about the accident.

He also learned to fix the VW's much faster brother, the Audi.

Princic was driving a black 1999 Audi on May 20 when it crashed into a utility pole in Painesville.

He was thrown from the car and died.

Before the accident, he had been visiting family in Lake County and celebrating a friend's birthday at a Painesville watering hole.

I resumed the life story by talking about a quarry park, frequented by would-be flower children, where everybody knows your nickname.

I gave one of the explanations I had heard about how Mowgli got his moniker.

Princic was called "Mowgli," because he reminded friends of the jungle boy from the Rudyard Kipling stories.

"A skinny little boy, never had a shirt on, and he was like a monkey. He was always climbing on stuff," said Princic's former girlfriend, Heather Schaffer.

I showed Mowgli's caring nature and love for Schaffer.

Princic often lifted Schaffer, a paraplegic, out of her wheelchair and carried her to otherwise inaccessible places, so she could share what he experienced.

He once carried her at least 90 steps to the scenic-view area of a lookout tower in the Smoky Mountains.

I ended the story with an expression of Mowgli's attitude on life.

"He would dance naked in the kitchen, just because it's Tuesday," Schaffer said.

"I don't think I've ever met someone who loved life so much, just because it was."

I received a lot of positive feedback on Mowgli's story and not just from folks who knew him. People enjoyed reading an obit about this fascinating live-life-to-the-fullest character.

I expected that I and my superiors would hear from critics, who thought I was an irresponsible journalist who paid tribute to a drunk driver who could easily have taken the lives of others with his reckless behavior. And we did get complaints. But only a few.

Of course, I wasn't paying tribute to Mowgli. I simply provided a snapshot of his life. I don't editorialize. I have faith in my readers' ability to draw their own conclusions.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making mistakes and writing obits for Alfred alumni

Several weeks ago, I spoke to a genealogical group and stressed the importance of accuracy in obits.

One elderly fellow asked, "What do you do when you make a mistake? Like the one you made in today's paper?"

It was just a typo, but it was embarrassing. I gave the man's year of birth as 1927, when it was really 1917. The man in the audience noted the date of birth and the year I had written for the dead guy's graduation from college and said, "He must have been a genius to graduate at such a young age."

I had to write a correction which in Plain Dealer style pointed out that it was the reporter's error. Yes, it was my fault initially, but several editors read the obits before they get printed. It was the kind of error that could have been caught.

I thought that was bad. But I topped it a few days after returning from the obituary writers confab at Alfred (N.Y.) University to the North Coast (that would be the northern part of Ohio that borders Lake Erie).

In a previous blog item that shared reports on the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Alfred, Steve Miller wrote in the comments that he was in the process of writing an obituary for the New York Sun about someone who had graduated from Alfred University.

Curiously, I too had just written an obit for an Alfred alumnus for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Weird, huh?

Anyway, Ms. Know-It-All (that would be me) noted that the family friend who compiled obit info said that Alfred was in "upstate New York." And as we learned during our stay in that college town, Alfred is in the "southern tier." But "southern tier" of what, I'm not sure. To me, it was not "upstate."

So I decided to provide directions to Alfred. Again, a typo. I wrote that Alfred was in "southeastern New York state," when I meant to say "southwestern," which still would have been wrong, because it's sort of in the south-central portion of the state.

I wrote to Dave Snyder, our Alfred host, to share my tale and poke fun at myself. To my surprise, Dave told me that I misunderstood the meaning of "upstate New York."

If you look at a map of the state, New York City is in the southeastern tail. Every other part of the state is further north or "upstate," even places like Buffalo, which are essentially on the state's western border.

So the family friend was correct. And my error was compounded, making me feel like an even bigger idiot.

Monday, June 18, 2007

9th Great reports from near and far

I'm taking the easy route to reporting on the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference, which was held at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., June 14-16, 2007. I'm letting others do the reporting. The links to some of those reports appear below.

From a personal perspective, I can tell you that I had a marvelous time in Alfred. I always do when I hang out with my fellow grimsters. It's like a family or class reunion. Plus we get to meet new folks and make new friends. And the little college town and the Alfredians I met were charming.

Three of our colleagues were mentioned or quoted in most reports on the conference so far.

1. Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News, who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing last year. (They don't have a category for obit writing. Otherwise, he'd most likely get that too. He's such an awesome writer.) Jim has a newly released anthology of obits titled "Obit: Inspiring stories of ordinary people who led extraordinary lives." Go to Jim's Web site for more info. (By the way, Jim also is a co-author along with Stephen Miller and me, Alana Baranick, of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers."

2. Marilyn Johnson, author of "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries," who was cited by numerous newbies at the 9th as the reason they traveled from as far away as Puerto Rico to attend the conference.

3. Andrew McKie, obits editor at the Daily Telegraph of London, who is an international superstar among obituary writers.

Andrew M. blogged several reports during the conference. In his blog titled "Who deserves an obituary?", Andrew shares some good advice offered by the BBC's Bob Chaundy, who recently had to deal with clueless young producers, who didn't want to run a TV obit for a guy named Boris Yeltsin. They didn't recognize the significance of the late Russian leader.

The advice: The internet is a potentially useful tool in overcoming such resistance. On the rare occasions when the name of someone whom we have decided deserves a big obituary doesn’t register with other reporters, it is quite helpful to be able to go to something like Technorati, and point out that there has been a lot of blog posting about someone’s death.

Dave Snyder, who co-hosted the event with International Association of Obituarists founder Carolyn Gilbert, apparently set up a conference blog back in March and didn't bother telling us about it. In it he says something we heard a lot of from proud Alfredians:
While Alfred is not the "end of the world," you can see it from here.

Alfred University put out an advance report on the conference, which was republished in Dave's newspaper, the Alfred Sun. As with many of the reports, it's not entirely accurate, but that which is not on the money is not important in the big scheme of things.

John F. Bonfatti of the Buffalo News provided one of the first published accounts of the first day of the conference - "Odd conference draws a crowd" - on June 16.

The tip-off that this was not just another conference was a black casket just outside the meeting room. “Welcome to Alfred,” read a sign on its side. “We’ve been dying for you to come."

During a conference break, Carolyn Gilbert gave an interview for an NPR segment called "The Obit Lady".

Jim Daggy, who runs the "Dead Pool" for Google Groups' alt.obituaries, put pictures from the last day of the conference on his Dead Pool site.

Krishna Andavolu's report for Obit Magazine includes my favorite obit-writing tip from Jim Sheeler for going beyond the cliché.

Whenever someone says, he would've given the shirt off of his back, Sheeler asks, "well, did you ever see him do that?"

Andrew Losowsky, a British writer who lives in Spain, read an excerpt from one of his nonfiction works at the conference. In it, he forecast some fascinating post-mortem Internet services to offer folks while they're still alive.

Andrew L. also blogged about the 9th Great. Hopefully, you'll find his blog here.

The Hornell (N.Y.) Evening Tribune and the Olean (N.Y.) Times Herald, newspapers from towns near Alfred, were supposed to be publishing stories on the 9th Great, but I haven't seen them yet.

I'm sure there will be others. Please share published reports and blogs associated with the 9th Great and Alfred with us.

We welcome personal reports and comments from those who attended, from those who only wish they'd attended and from those who are looking forward to the 10th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Toronto, Ontario, in 2008.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Obit for a newsroom colleague

Gayle Ronan Sims had the task and the privilege of writing the obituary for fellow Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Marc Schogol, whose story ran in that newspaper on May 27, 2007.

Gayle wrote what appears to be personal recollections of the longtime Inquirer master word craftsman and role model, who died of leukemia at age 58.

She writes: In a business filled with large and often fragile egos, Mr. Schogol could be counted on to handle the most mundane assignments with the same enthusiasm and craft he brought to the biggest stories. He was a selfless colleague who enjoyed helping other reporters shape their work.

She includes standard obit elements - his work history, his writings and comments from editors, folks he interviewed and his family. She also paints an affectionate portrait that no doubt is recognizable to friends in the newsroom and to the public:

Mr. Schogol never took himself too seriously. He is remembered for his gentle eyes and shock of unruly hair - and for padding around the newsroom in stocking feet.

He confessed to being the bearded middle-age man at the mall who took money for answering consumer surveys while his wife shopped.

I especially like the quote in which Inquirer reporter Elizabeth Duff shares her first impressions of Schogol from 1974:

"I saw this new guy in blue jeans, a work shirt and long hair," she said. "I thought he must be a copy boy. I introduced myself and he said, 'I'm a reporter.' I was drawn to him because of his kindness and talent."

Nicely done, Gayle.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

9th Great Obituary Writers Conference panelists and program

The Numbered Greats are always the highlight of the year for obituary writers and enthusiasts. We make our reservations and pay registration fees often without knowing who will be making presentations or what their topics will be.

The fact is, we love getting together with our fellow grimsters. The Great Obituary Writers confabs are more like class reunions than structured seminars.

Speakers confirmed for the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference, which will be held June 14-16, 2007, in Alfred, N.Y., include Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News, Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post, Gayle Ronan Sims of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Joan Harvey of the Oregonian, Robert Chaundy of the BBC, Nigerian journalist Betty Abah, author Marilyn Johnson, Andrew Losowsky, a British-by-birth technical writer and obit expert who lives in Spain, and Dave Snyder of the Alfred Sun who is co-hosting the conference with International Association of Obituarists and conference founder Carolyn Gilbert.

I don't know exactly what they'll be talking about, but I don't care. I know all of them, and I'm sure they'll share information that is worthwhile, informative and, most likely, entertaining. More panelists may be added to the program before it takes place.

I welcome the panelists to post some info about their topics, either as a comment to this posting or as a new post. If you cannot or don't want to post it personally, please email me at with the information and I'll post it for you.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Questions About Invisible Colleagues

As the U.S. military death toll rises in Iraq, I know without a doubt that somewhere in America there is a city editor planning to publish a new obit tomorrow. Reporters are making calls to grieving family members and friends, and writing up the final facts of a soldier's war-shortened life.

The number of Iraqi civilian casualties is less certain. The Iraq Body Count Website puts the maximum death toll by military intervention in Iraq at just over 70,000. That number doesn't include the ordinary deaths of every day life (disease, homicide, suicide, accident, etc.)

Which makes me wonder...are there obituary writers working in Iraq? If so, how do they choose which subjects to profile? How do they find sources in a war zone? And can they write unbiased obits and have them published?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dead End Job

Dead End Job

A rather sweet short movie (with an abrupt ending - you have been warned) about an obituary writer with a hidden source. Well worth watching if you have 20 minutes spare. Should we show this at the conference?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Socially acceptable

"“Most people think only fleetingly about how they will die, and usually it surrounds some romantic notion of dying in our sleep at home,” said Allan Kellehear, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bath and author of the new book A social history of dying. “This notion couldn’t be further from the truth... Dying today is becoming increasingly tragic and antisocial. The way we die is important because it is the last act of life, and plays an important role in how our friends and relatives will remember us."

A Social History of Dying - a great secondary text for any obit writer.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Great obit resource - TIME archives

I only slowly became aware of this - all or at least an awful lot of Time magazine is available for free at their website. Anybody who was newsworthy, say, 20 or 50 years ago is there.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The 9th, 10th and 11th Great Obituary Writers Conferences

The wait is over, grimsters.
The sites of the next three obituary writers conferences are set.

The 9th is scheduled for June 14-16, 2007, in Alfred, N.Y.
The 10th - in 2008 - will be in Toronto, Ontario.
And the 11th will be in Marin County, Calif., in 2009.

Carolyn Gilbert, the founder of the conferences and the International Association of Obituarists, has posted all sorts of details and has promised to give updates along the way at

Make your reservations for Alfred as soon as possible. See you there!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lives of the dodo

British focused, but worth a giggle, As a Dodo writes mock obituaries as political satire.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Why I love alt.obituaries

I trust this web address will carry you to alt.obituaries,
where a serial post about the life and work of
Ryan Larkin is developing. The obituary, from
the Globe and Mail, is wonderful, and the youtube
links to his short films and a short film about him
are stunning.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A first: double obit of unrelated people

Here's something utterly tasteless - how would you like to have your obit combined with somebody else's just because you worked for the same lousy employer?

Two C.W. Post professors die on same day


March 8, 2007

Two prominent faculty members at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University died of cancer yesterday - music department chairman Christopher Culver and Jacqueline Frank, considered one of America's foremost medievalists.

Culver, 54, of Sea Cliff, who also was director of Jazz Studies, came to the Brookville campus in 2001, and was elected chairman of the department of music in 2003. He served as chairman of the C.W. Post faculty council in 2005 and 2006.

"He was a jazz trombonist and a wonderful teacher," said James McRoy, who lives in Huntington and heads symphonic winds at Post. "He was very dynamic. The students really enjoyed working with him."

McRoy said that, this summer, a student tour with a jazz ensemble and a vocal jazz ensemble that Culver helped organize will be performing in France. "The jazz ensemble has 18 members; he was responsible for it."

Besides his widow, Carrie, Culver is survived by an 8-year-old daughter, Madison. A memorial service for him is being planned at the campus Interfaith Center. McRoy said formal funeral services would be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Christ Church in Oyster Bay.

Frank, 61, of Great Neck, whose research dealt with the political implications of 12th century art in Western Europe and England, also was interested in the way Jews were depicted during that period. She specialized in Medieval stained glass and inscriptions, and had chaired sessions at international conferences on the study of the Middle Ages in both the United States and Europe.

She earned her bachelor's degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her master's and PhD in art history from Columbia University. She is survived by her husband, Itzak, and their two children.

Funeral services for her will be held tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel, 180 W. 76th St., in Manhattan.

C.W. Post is establishing memorial scholarships in the name of each of the professors through its Office of Development. Messages of condolence can be sent to the Dean's office, school of visual and performing arts, C.W. Post campus, Long Island University, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville, N.Y. 11548.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Talk about burying the lede! Obit writer and hog-caller!

Thomas J. Normand, 65, longtime Nashville Banner obituary writer

Longtime Nashville Banner obituary writer Thomas Jean "Tom" Normand,
65, is remembered as a master of his craft and as a fun-loving soul by
former colleagues.

Mr. Normand's body was discovered Sunday at his West Nashville home by
his only child, Suzanne Normand Blackwood, a staffer at The

Arrangements are incomplete but are being handled by Harpeth Hills
Funeral Home and Memory Garden, 9090 Highway 100.

Former Nashville Banner Editor Eddie Jones said Tuesday that Mr.
Normand "put his heart and soul into that special niche" of obituary

Jones said Mr. Normand "had some sort of natural kindness in him and,
during the 10 years I worked with him, I got innumerable letters and
telephone calls from families who had lost somebody and Tom had done
the obit. They would say how much they appreciated Tom's kindness."

When The Banner closed nine years ago, Mr. Normand came to The
Tennessean for a time.

Mary Hance, who learned to write obituaries under Mr. Normand's
tutelage in her early years at the Banner, remembered him as "a true
professional with a knack for writing ... interesting and descriptive

"He took it very seriously and chose to be an obituary writer in an
industry where, in many newspapers, obit writing was relegated to
young, inexperienced reporters."

His life wasn't just about death, though. It also was about calling
the hogs.

"He had another side, a fun-loving side," said Hance, The Tennessean's
"Ms. Cheap."

"He was one of the people who helped shape the Swine Ball, the
American Cancer Society fundraiser that spoofed the Swan Ball. His
annual award-winning hog call - a long, drawn-out, very realistic
rendition - was unequalled and always drew a huge crowd and much

"He also could, at the drop of a hat, recite Louisiana Governor Jimmie
Davis' gospel song 'Supper Time.' "

Mr. Normand was born Dec. 29, 1941, in Marksville, La. Survivors
include two sisters, Peggy Underwood of Houston and Leah Sadden of
Hammond, La.; a brother, Owen Normand of Soquel, Calif.; four nieces;
and a nephew.

"obit" the Book

I have an advance copy of Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler's new book, "obit," subtitled "Inspiring stories of ordinary people who led extraordinary lives," and started reading it Tuesday night. My plan was to flip through it, but I couldn't put it down.

It's a good read, a showcase for our colleague's deft writing—which we recognized before the Pulitzer committee did—and recommended reading for the two other Atlanta Journal-Constitution obit writers, Derrick Henry and Holly Crenshaw, who gets a mention in the paperback version of Marilyn Johnson's "Dead Beat." Marilyn writes a cover blurb for Jim's book, and it's featured in the publisher's promotional letter, too.

Jim's writing stands the test of time. You can't help but find a new, though dead, friend in "How to Build a Mountain," Edward "Duke" Mallory's obit or admire this quote about the ubiquitous cancer death from the Aimee Grunberger's husband,
"It's not that there's too much cancer in the world. It's just that it's badly distributed."

Tell your bookstore to reserve you a copy and be jealous that I already have mine.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Courageous battles and sensitivity

I teach an adult-education seminar in Marin County, California, titled "Write Your Own Obituary (Or a Loved One's)." In a class a few weeks back, I suggested that students steer of obits cliches including, "She never said a bad word about anyone," and "He'd have given you the shirt off his back."

When I suggested that "a courageous battle" with such-and-such a disease is another hackneyed descriptive we can all do without, one class member taught me a lesson in sensitivity. This 50-something woman was there to write her own obit. She was suffering a recurrence of cancer and said that after enduring repeated rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, the ordeal feels like waging war.

Mea culpa.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Obit Postponement

Obit Magazine, a bimonthly publication dedicated to chronicling the lives of recently departed major figures, has decided to delay its premiere issue for six more months. The print and online versions of Obit were slated to debut on Feb. 1.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Dr. Starck, Obituarist

Nigel wrote a wonderful obituary of an aborigine painter
for the Guardian. Don't miss it.,,2005884,00.html

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Read it and weep.

Seriously. Have a box of Kleenex handy before you start reading Healer who never fell back laid to rest, a Jim Sheeler masterpiece that ran in the Rocky Mountain News on Dec. 30, 2006.

It's about a Marine's bond with the Navy corpsman, who saved his life.

Little touches got to me.

About the Marine sergeant, Jim wrote: The sergeant's father wheeled him into a waiting room, where the Marine asked to sit in the corner, out of the way. Soon, the room was filled with crisp Navy uniforms - admirals, chiefs and hospital corpsmen, many of them sporting dress coats jingling with medals.

Then, down the stairs, the sergeant saw the people who wore no uniforms, the ones who wore only grief.

Jim wrote this about the Navy corpsman: Using his medical equipment as a universal translator - and ice-breaker - he treated Iraqis as well as his own men, forging trust in a place where the word often has no definition. If he saw an Iraqi child with a cut or scrape, he would paste the child with antibacterial cream and bandages and attempt to win his part of the war with Band-Aids.

Wearing grief. Winning a war with Band-Aids. Jim sure has a way with words. And with emotions. You have to read the entire piece to get the full effect.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Pretty amazing" obit for family princess

Jim Sheeler passed along this story, which he called "pretty amazing." I'm sure you'll agree with his assessment.

It's an obituary Erin Sullivan wrote for Cynthia Sargent, homecoming queen and family princess, for the Jan. 22, 2007, edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

Here's the essence of Erin's story about Cynthia:
She never did anything she didn't want to do - and she definitely didn't want to die. People usually did what she wished, without complaint, because they loved her. After 42 years of getting her way, her body was the first to refuse.

For me, coming from a newspaper where the fact that the person is dead is supposed to be mentioned in the first two sentences, I love how Erin made it clear in the lead that Cindy was dead without having to resort to the traditional death sentence.

Her stepfather leaned over her deathbed and said he was going to the store.

The princess' last request? Three ripe, organic, unblemished bananas.

She'd always been particular.
She ordered food like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, with everything just so and on the side.

Cindy, who preferred to be called Cynthia, because it was more elegant, also wanted to look like the slim, trim homecoming queen that she had been as a teenager.

Erin writes that Cindy's mom remembers a time when the chemotherapy burned Cindy's palms like she had pressed them down on a hot skillet. She and Cindy were going to Wal-Mart to get bandages. But Cindy still took hours getting ready - wig, scarf, outfit, polished toenails, pretty sandals, makeup.

"Cindy," her mom said, exasperated, "what does it matter?"

"But Mom," Cindy said. "I might see someone I know."

You have got to read the entire obit. It's awesome.

Written by the Deceased

Charles L. Fontenay, a science fiction writer and former editor for The Tennessean, died on Jan. 27. Cause of death was not released. He was 89.

Those were the bare facts of Fontenay's obit. But there was oh so much more.

During his 40-plus years at The Tennessean, Fontenay worked as a general assignment reporter, science reporter, legislative and political writer, city editor and rewrite editor. In his spare time, he prepared advance obituaries on prominent people -- including his own.

"Charles L. Fontenay, most of whose half century-plus as a newspaperman was spent with The Tennessean, surprised himself and delighted many of his colleagues by dying yesterday."

Although the self-penned piece was a bit long -- particularly for a professional editor -- I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Charles' work, hobbies and life experiences. His article also reminded me to look beyond the bare facts of a person's life when I'm researching/writing obits, and really delve into the details. For it is there that the best stories are found.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To Err Is Human, To Forgive Divine

Everyone makes mistakes, yet when you make an error in an obituary -- the final story to document someone's life and achievements -- it is important to immediately fix the problem.

Michelle Martin made such a mistake in the last issue of the Catholic New World. She ran the wrong photo on Father John M. Murphy's obit; the picture actually showed Father Cliff Bergin, who is still among the living. Although the story was later corrected in print, Martin also wrote an entire column of apology to everyone involved.

"My apologies to Father Cliff Bergin, the priest (living, I am happy to say) whose picture ran, and to Father Murphy's family. I'd apologize to Father Murphy, too, but I suspect he isn't so interested in worldly concerns anymore -- and if he was, that his sense of humor would kick in. I hope he would forgive me -- as I hope those who love him, as well as Father Bergin and his family have," Martin wrote.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gussie and the knitting factory

The better portion of the obituary I wrote for Gussie Jones, that was published in The Plain Dealer on Jan. 13, 2007, focused on her late-in-life career as a volunteer, helping fellow seniors at a senior center.

Gussie was in her 70s, when she started volunteering at an adult day care center in the late 1980s. She was honored with an award for her dedication when she was approaching 90. What a great person she must have been!

But the following lines I wrote about a job Gussie held earlier in life ended up giving me the warm fuzzies:

In the 1940s, when her children were young and her husband, a city employee, became too ill to work, Gussie took a job at the H.E. Frisch Knitting Mills, which later became part of the Bobbie Brooks Co.

Her boss "was a German man," said Jones' daughter Shirley Parker-McCoy. "His machines were brought over from the old country. They made a special kind of knit. She worked nights. She would walk around the machines so they didn't get a hole in the knitting."

I like to include little tidbits of history - in this case local history - in obits. Some readers get nostalgic over such things. Others stroke their chins and say, "Hmm. I've never heard of that."

This time, I heard from a reader whose family owned the knitting mill. He wrote: I have a DVD showing my father and Gussie's German boss and the machinery she was operating. It may be interesting to her family. How can I contact them?

Naturally, I don't give out phone numbers, mailing or e-mail addresses for the relatives of the people I write about. I usually forward e-mails, when possible, or call the family to give them the option of contacting the person. Or I simply advise the interested party to check the phone book - on paper or online - or contact the funeral home. Funeral directors should be able to forward condolences and such to the family.

In Gussie's case, I called her daughter in Georgia to relay the e-mailer's message. The end result: The e-mailer sent Gussie's kids the video to show them the machine from the old country that she'd always told them about.

I love when that happens.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Funeral TV, The Funeral Channel, RIP TV

I missed a lot of the week or so of live television coverage of funerary events for the late former President Gerald Ford and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.

Because of Ford's position as the former leader of the free world, CSPAN, PBS and the cable news networks repeated most of the pomp and circumstance of late prez's family-and-friends services in California, motorcade to the Capitol, ceremonies at the Capitol, his lying in state, public services at the Washington Cathedral and the grand finale in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Portions of the eulogizing of Ford by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert and of Brown by now-reclusive pop star Michael Jackson were re-broadcast on talk and entertainment shows, but not in their entirety.

I was unable to stay home from work to watch live coverage of this death-related hoopla. And I felt somehow deprived for having missed any of it - particularly the musical tributes to Brown.

I also wanted to compare their sendoffs with those of other presidents and entertainment icons. Nostalgia swept over me. Could I please see repeats of the funerals of Presidents Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy and Roosevelt? How about some historic reports on pre-TV presidential funerals, like Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson? How did James Brown's tributes compare with the recently deceased R&B star Gerald Levert or country legend Johnny Cash or just-plain-legendary Frank Sinatra?

If only my cable company offered a cable channel dedicated to funerals! Funeral TV! The Funeral Channel! Insomniacs flipping through the remote control could find videotaped or phone-cam images from funerals of the dearly - or notoriously - departed rich and famous to watch and/or fall asleep to.

I mentioned this to a few friends, who thought the notion of all funerals, all day on one channel strange and amusing. That's how I felt when I first learned about The Weather Channel or CSPAN2's BookTV. And yet I have become a fan of both.

Before composing this blog item, I was reminded of these paraphrased words of the late great comedian/philosopher/songwriter/TV-host Steve Allen: If an idea is good, more than likely you are not the only one who has thought of it.

So I googled "Funeral Channel" and "Funeral TV." Yep. I got lots of hits.

In a 1997 piece titled "Why funerals play so well on TV," author Steven D. Stark wrote:

Mourning no longer becomes Electra, but in a very odd way, it does become television -- so much so that Michael Kinsley (journalist who was Pat Buchanan's liberal adversary on CNN's "Crossfire") several years ago (apparently in the early 1990s or 1980s) jokingly suggested that cable television would one day feature a new network called the Funeral Channel.

I found a 1999 "Insight on the News" piece in which writer Jennifer G. Hickey talked about a Clown Funeral. She wrote:

It was a big day for the big top in Hugo, Okla., particularly for Doris Richard Miller, otherwise known as Mr. Circus, who died in September but had been put on ice by the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus until the show season concluded. While big red noses and cymbal-playing monkeys were not called for, Mr. Circus had left careful instructions for his last performance, -- including being laid out in a red and gold casket, to be carried by a horse-drawn hearse followed by marching musicians playing circus music to enliven his journey to the hereafter.

This "best funeral ever" even included in the procession one of Miller's 36 elephants, missing only live coverage by the cable-TV networks. If only there were a 24-hour funeral channel.

"Think how wonderfully ludicrous that would be. I don't think it is viable, but it is the logical extension" of the current coverage, suggests Jane Hall, associate professor of communication at American University in Washington. While the notion of an all-funeral channel (let's call it RIP-TV) may elicit a dismissive giggle from enthusiasts of black humor, the recent trend of airing everything from tragic events to the funerals that follow them suggests that there may be a Harold and Maude market.

The Blue Aardvark, a prolific message-board contributor penned this comment on Andy Polley's Happy Fun Time message board:
This reminds me that what this world really needs is The Funeral Channel. There always a good one going on somewhere. Slack time could be filled with historic packages.

My sentiments exactly.

Practical reasons for a Grim Channel are given in "What's Playing On The Funeral Channel?" from Nov. 1998. (I'm not certain where it first appeared.):

Retired sociology professor Robert Fulton, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, says people shouldn't be surprised to see a "funeral channel" added to cable network offerings in the near future. Televised funeral services for celebrities and public figures have provided big ratings for CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, with some networks doubling viewership.

"Watching televised funerals provides a chance for people to express emotion, or at least see others expressing [it]," Fulton explains. "People afraid of death can also keep it at a distance." For example, the high-profile deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, politicians Barry Goldwater and Sonny Bono, and country-and-western singer Tammy Wynette had networks scrambling to broadcast funerals. "It's packaged death--a way of keeping death under control. We can see the grief on the faces of family and friends, but we are spared that."

My Internet search also discovered references to funeral homes offering Webcasts of funerals for mourners unable to attend; a movie titled "Funeral Channel," a dark comedy which apparently was made in 1999 but never released; and support for a funeral channel in the mode of the History Channel or Biography from Rychard E. Withers, who posts with WNN, an online discussion group for fans of ABC's "World News Now."

In a 2003 entry, Withers wrote:
And I've been saying for years that this would be a cable channel that would
work . . steady supply of material and lots of big names . . . "The Funeral Channel . . . now you'll know the bastard's dead."