Friday, June 27, 2008

New Canadian radio program features documentary obituaries

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has launched a weekly radio program dedicated to documentary obituaries of "the extraordinary life stories of deceivingly ordinary Canadians."

The host is the renowned actor Gordon Pinsent. The first episode aired on June 24 featuring a look at the life of a street person known as Midget Mike.

For more information and to listen to the first episode, check out:

tom hawthorn
victoria, b.c., canada

Thursday, June 26, 2008

International TV POV on Obits

The Listening Post, a U.K.-based company that produces programs for Al Jazeera English, presented a segment about writing obituaries from an international point of view on a program that aired June 20, 2008.

The producers included comments from experts in the field, including Steve Miller, New York Sun obits editor, Wall Street Journal "Remembrances" writer and contributor to the Obituary Forum.

Don't be alarmed by the title of the program: The Trial of Al Jazeera English. The link provided above is for the second half of the show, which is about obituary writing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Notes from the 10th Great Obituary Writers Conference

Perhaps the blogsters might have some interest in a report of sorts from the recent Tenth Great Obits Conference in Las Vegas, NM, held June 13 to 15. Following are some items from my notes.

The assemblage was somewhat smaller in numbers than in some recent years. It was hard to keep count, however the official attendance roster showed 15 official registrants. There were a few more who had not probably not officially registered. I think those were spouses, significant others, etc. who mostly did not sit in on many of the sessions. Though lacking in size this was a group that quickly bonded into a common purpose, consideration of the art of the obituary.

Aside from many familiar faces from past conferences, the Tenth Great attracted several new folks with interesting backgrounds and purposes. There were two film makers from the U.K. who are looking into bringing Marilyn Johnson's delightful "The Dead Beat" to the screen. A professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented a challenging, discussion provoking paper on the ethical implications of obituaries for animals. A representative of a biographical research company in California added that perspective to our discussions. A young former public radio broadcaster, now a graduate student in creative nonfiction writing, educated us about the application of the latter craft to the obituarists' art.
I was personally pleased to meet a colleague from the librarian ranks, just recently retired from the science library at UC Berkeley. We library folk, though few in number, appreciate the importance of obits.

Some highlights from the formal presentations follow. On day one, Professor Jane Desmond made the aforementioned talk about obituaries for animals. I must say that this talk triggered one of the most lively, and at times emotional, discussions in my memory from the Great Obit Writers conferences. You just had to have been there. We all completed questionnaires for Dr. Desmond for her use in furthering her research efforts. It was good to see our old friend Trudi Hahn Pickett back at the conference table. Now relocated to New Mexico, Trudi formerly wrote obits in Minnesota and attended previous conferences before leaving the craft to marry and join her husband in the Southwest. Trudi presented a personal case study in the writing of a family composed obit, a news obituary, and a personal eulogy, all three involving the passing of her husband six months ago. Emotional though it was for all concerned, it was a remarkable sharing experience for us. Highlights from day two included a visit and presentation from Jim Sheeler our Pulitzer winning comrade from conferences past and member of the IAO Hall of Fame.
Jim began his presentation with selections from the Spoon River Anthology collection of epitaph/poems, brought to YouTube video by high school students and accompanied by tracks from alt-country singer Richard Buckner. Jim followed that with video highlights that accompanied his recent book "Final Salute" about his work with surviving families of soldiers fallen in the Afghan and Iraqi war zones. The final presentation, that being the award to the newest IAO Hall of Fame winner, was to have been made by Kay Powell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kay was stopped mid-way by IAO founder Carolyn Gilbert, who took over the floor to announce that Kay herself was the new inductee. Bravo! Congratulations to Kay!

Some bits 'n pieces to wrap up . . . as part of a response to the recent Boston Globe column about the IAO - SPOW split, Carolyn Gilbert verbally countered several of the claims presented in the piece. She also indicated that the annual calendar of the numbered Great Obituary Writers conferences may change somewhat so as not to come so near in time to the SPOW meetings.
Locations will likely continue to be in somewhat off the beaten path venues. Efforts remain underway to identify a location to place the archives of the IAO, which now fill five filing cabinets. We had somewhat of an echo of the famous Ronald Reagan death bulletin pandemonium when Jim Sheeler, arriving at the conference, brought the news flash about Tim Russert's sudden death. I announced the initiation of an "Obituaries in Education Interest Group" which will remain associated with the IAO and will serve as a link for folks who use obituaries in an educational setting. Please watch this blog and the IAO's website for further information.

Wish you could have been there!


Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Window Into the Past

The current writer of the Dear Abby column (her daughter actually) recently tackled the topic of obituary photographs. Some readers want to see more modern pictures of the deceased. Others prefer pictures from the past. If you had to choose one to accompany your news obit, which would you publish?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Obituary writers: Accomplices in Crime???

In the previous Obituary Forum post - "Obituarists Abet Second-Story Man!" - Steve Miller shared a story from The Republican about a Massachusetts man who admitted robbing several families while they were attending the funerals of loved ones.

Pam Vetter, a certified funeral celebrant who pens obit-related articles and obituaries for her clients for Los Angeles-area publications, sent along a story about a similar case. This one happened in Missouri.

In her June 9, 2008, American Chronicle piece, Funeral Day Burglar Convicted: Thieving from Those Who are Grieving and Its Effect on Paid Death Notices and Obituaries, Pam suggests that publicity surrounding such cases might make families reluctant to share information about the dearly departed for reporter-written or paid obits.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obituarists Abet Second-Story Man!

Judge gets tough on funeral burglar

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

NORTHAMPTON - A Hampshire Superior Court judge postponed sentencing yesterday for a man who admitted robbing several families while they were attending the funerals of loved ones.

Thomas J. Walker, 20, of 131 North St., Palmer, pleaded guilty to four counts of breaking and entering in the daytime to commit a felony, four counts of larceny over $250, and two counts of larceny of a firearm.

During his plea on Monday, Walker acknowledged that he studied obituaries, noted the times of certain funerals, and broke into the homes of the families of the deceased, knowing that they would be at the services.

Three of the thefts occurred in Belchertown, and one in South Hadley. All of the break-ins took place last July.

The court was told that Walker stole jewelry, money, computers, and other items from the homes, as well as two handguns. Police matched a fingerprint at one of the crime scenes to Walker, and also observed him on a surveillance videotape using one of the bank cards he stole.

Police stopped him while he was driving, and found some of the stolen property from South Hadley in his car, according to prosecutors. Many of the other items were recovered at his home.

Defense lawyer John W. Drake and prosecutor Frank E. Flannery had recommended a sentence of three to five years in prison in exchange for Walker's guilty plea, but Judge Bertha D. Josephson indicated that she would mete out an additional 10 years' probation, calling his actions despicable.

When a judge exceeds the recommended sentence, defendants are allowed to withdraw their guilty plea and seek a trial. Josephson gave Walker a day in which to reconsider.

In court yesterday, Walker said he would accept the sentence.

Josephson scheduled the sentencing for July 28 so that the probation department can prepare a pre-sentencing report. Drake told the judge that Walker developed a drug habit after his father, a former state Highway Department worker, was injured and became addicted to Oxycontin.

Use of the painkiller spread through the family, and Walker eventually became addicted to heroin, Drake said.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tim Russert

Surely you know by now that Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief for NBC News and moderator of "Meet the Press," died of a heart attack Friday, June 13, while working at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C.

He was only 58.

Print and broadcast accounts of his life and death are too numerous to list. Here are a few of them.

Naturally, the NBC/MSNBC and Meet the Press folks gave him the biggest send-off.

His hometown paper, the Buffalo News, ran several articles and columns for Buffalo's Own.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer also claimed Russert as a local guy because he graduated from John Carroll University and Cleveland State University's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Tom Shales penned An Appreciation for Russert in The Washington Post. The Post also provided many but nowhere near all of the links to other articles that have been written or broadcast about Russert since Friday.

Have you read, watched or listened to any Russert obits that you'd like to share?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Obituary conferences are about life, not death.

Brenda Bolinger wrote an article titled Obituary conference showed obit writers fascinated with life lived for the Claremont-Courier (Claremont, Calif.).

She wrote it from her perspective of having attended the Portland obit writers workshop in May and a Numbered Great Obituary Writers Conference in Las Vegas, N.M., in 2003.

In her multilayered answer to the question - What in the world happens at an obituary writers conference? - Brenda provides a report on the Portland gathering and her commentary on obit writers conferences in general.

She writes that the conferences are not depressing, but Invigorating, fascinating, inspiring, challenging, moving and even laugh-inducing, but not depressing.

Judging from the frequency with which I was asked this question, or a variation thereof, I believe there is a misconception about obituary writers. The prevailing perspective is that we are mired in death. How far from the truth.

We are, instead, mired in life. We intentionally, vigorously steep ourselves in life, in history, in relationships and personalities. Far from being attracted to this profession out of a morbid or melancholic obsession, obituary writers find the allure of life keeps them rooted in the profession.

I think she's got something there.

We're waiting for reports on the 10th Great that was held the weekend of June 13.

(One point of clarification: Brenda refers to the Portland workshop as the Society of Professional Obituary Writers "first annual conference." Although the Portland event provided the opportunity for SPOW's first meeting, the workshop/conference was put on independently by Amy Starke and Joan Harvey of The Oregonian.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The 10th Great

The 10th Great Obituary Writers' International Conference will be held this weekend - June 12-14, 2008 - in Las Vegas, N.M.

Speakers and topics have been posted at

The speakers listed are:

Dr. Jane Desmond, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, co-founder and director of the International Forum for U.S. Studies and president of the International American Studies Association;

Trudi Hahn Pickett, retired Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune obituary writer and authority on all things military;

Jim Sheeler, scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado, author of "Final Salute" and "Obit," and International Association of Obituarists Hall of Fame inductee, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while reporting for the Rocky Mountain News.

Kay Powell, obits editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and winner of two 2008 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards, is slated for the presentation of the 2008 IAO Hall of Fame recipient.

IAO founder Carolyn Gilbert, the creator, host and emcee of the Great Obituary Writers conferences, will wrap up the event Saturday. Her subject: What Lies Ahead?

We welcome reports on the conference.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Obit stirs controversy

I wrote an obituary for former Cleveland building commissioner Carlton Rush (published in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, on June 6, 2008) that the family and some readers called disgraceful, insensitive, unacceptable, tabloid journalism.

Here's how Ted Diadiun, the PD's reader rep, addressed the controversy in his June 8 column titled Headline on Carlton Rush's obituary did a disservice to his accomplished life.

Ted wrote: While Mr. Rush was building commissioner in Cleveland in the late 1970s, he became embroiled in what was widely known as the "carnival kickback case" -- an accusation that then-Cleveland City Council President George Forbes and others had accepted payoffs from a local carnival operator. Mr. Rush, Forbes and 16 others were indicted on a variety of charges. It was a story that dominated Cleveland's front pages and local television for much of the summer of 1979.

Mr. Rush won a motion to have his case separated from the others and was granted a separate trial. The charges against him were ultimately dismissed. In what appeared to be a case of prosecutorial overreach, the other defendants were acquitted.

After Carlton Rush died last Sunday, reporter Alana Baranick, the wise and sensitive woman who writes most of our obituaries, faced a decision: Could she write an honest obituary about a man whose life and accomplishments clearly rated one, without including the carnival case?

An obituary is a news story, not simply a tribute, and in summing up an overall worthy life, it's not easy to decide how much weight to give the bumpy spots.

"He was too well known and too important to the community to not do an obituary on him," she said, "but the event was too major to not include. Even though it was a long time ago, it was a daily happening in the news for more than a year."

I started the obit with information about Rush serving as the building commissioner, working as an electrical engineer and executive with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., and developing energy-efficient, environmentally friendly homes.

I deliberately inserted the carnival kickback case several paragraphs into the obit, so copy editors would not include it in the headline. No such luck.

Not only did the headline focus on that case, it indicated Rush was "acquitted." It didn't say the indictment was "dismissed."

It's odd how words take on connotations. Nowadays when we say someone was "acquitted," many people take it to mean that the person got away with something. They don't even consider that a person might have been innocent.

Likewise, many folks equate "indictment" with "guilt."

I hope those people consider this little bit of history about Cleveland's carnival kickback case and realize that just because someone in authority (prosecutor, police, politician) makes an accusation, it doesn't mean it's true.

I'm sure other obit writers have had to deal with similar issues. Please share your thoughts.

I hope the Rush family and their friends will read this and comment as well.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Onion headline? Nay, our frigid neighbor to the north.

Activist began as angry young man and retired as 'an angry old man'

New look for Obit mag

Check out the new Obit magazine at It’s been re-envisioned, re-engineered, reincarnated, the Obit newsletter reports.

Readers can now:

Read and comment on Visions of Heaven.

Look up your birth date in Died on the Same Day and discover who checked out on the day you checked in.

Relive historical moments through video and photography in Final Cut and Photo Finish.

Join a discussion about favorite graveyards.

Learn about the team behind Obit.

Register to receive Obit’s eNewsletter and to stay in touch with Obit.

Here's more from the Obit team:

Whether centered on a person, a place, an object or an idea, life’s constant change presents an opportunity for examination, discussion and celebration. Obit brings you a forum for ideas and opinions about life, death, and transition that you will find nowhere else.

Obit wishes to welcome our new visitors and to thank our loyal community. Please take a minute to give us feedback and to tell us a bit about you, so that we can continue to bring you content that informs and entertains you. Through the lens of life.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Whatever happened to the 10th Great in Toronto?

Have you been wondering about what went wrong with the obit writers conference that was scheduled more than a year ago to be held in Toronto, Ontario? And what prompted the formation of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers?

Columnist Alex Beam seems to have the answers and shares them in Grave schism on the death beat, his June 3, 2008, column for the Boston Globe.

He starts the column: You know the inevitabilities of modern life: death, taxes, and rival organizations of newspaper obituarists.

Beam managed to get a history of what has come to be known as the "Toronto fiasco" from Carolyn Gilbert, the founder of the Great Obituary Writers Conferences and the International Association of Obituarists, and Colin Haskin, obits editor at the Globe and Mail who was to have been the local host of the 10th Great Obituary Writers Conference.

He really did his homework.

It's enlightening.

Monday, June 02, 2008

What a way to go! Or - What? A way to go?

Stephanie Hayes addresses the many ways in which families say their loved ones left the planet, walked out of their wheelchairs and into the arms of the Lord and other euphemisms for "died" in her article, 'Dying' is just not good enough anymore, in the June 1, 2008, edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

She writes: The more we avoid thinking about the big sleep, the more numb we become, said Michael Knox, a University of South Florida professor who has taught courses about, um, blank and blanking.

Stephanie adds: Spiritual euphemisms crossed over, entered eternal life can be comforting to those who believe existence continues after we leave our earthly vessels.

"When the culture believes there is something after death, it keeps them going," Knox said.

While writing obits for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, I've encountered lots of staunch Christians, who insist that the dearly departed has "gone on to be with the Lord."

I usually tell them that, although their sainted loved one may have lived an exemplary Christian life that suggests that what they say is true, I can't write in a news obituary that someone is in heaven.

I can't verify it. I don't have a phone number for Jesus' heavenly mansion or St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. And our long distance lines don't reach that far anyway.