Friday, May 29, 2009

Introducing the Grim Reader, weekly obit commentary

Hi all,

Just wanted to pass a quick note about Obit-mag's newest column, The Grim Reader, a commentary-laden round up of the week's obits in papers and mags around the world. Did the obits skirt important issues, bury underlying historical narratives, or trump up achievements of little worth? The Grim Reader spares no one...

tell me what you think about format and scope... and do comment on Michael Schaffer's assessments...

hope you are doing well...

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Larry's Kidney" by Daniel Asa Rose, SPOW Award winner

Daniel Asa Rose, who received a 2008 Society of Professional Obituary Writers Award for his memoir-form obit titled "Fare Thee Well, Ex-Father-In-Law," has a new book out with the unlikely title, "LARRY'S KIDNEY: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China With my Black-Sheep Cousin and his Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant ... and Save His Life."

Be sure to view the video of Daniel explaining the circumstances of this "dark comedy about medical tourism" on his Web site -

Monday, May 11, 2009

Desirée Strand, as remembered by her sister

Justine Strand, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., wrote to the Society of Professional Obituary Writers about the obituary she wrote for her sister Desirée Strand.

In her email message, Justine wrote: I believe the obituary is far more important than any service. I wanted people who never knew my sister to read the obit and say, "What a fascinating and beautiful woman. I wish I could have known her."

I believe Justine has succeeded in her mission. Here's her sister's obit. What do you think?

Desirée Strand

In a parallel universe, Desirée Strand is planning a 54th birthday bash in Paris this July with her closest friends. In the limited dimension we inhabit, she died April 30, 2009 in Durham after years of ever-worsening multiple sclerosis (MS), blessed with dementia that made her unaware of the ravages of the disease.

Born Linda Joan Strand in Ridgecrest, California, she was a genius who defied convention. A willowy strawberry blonde, she was a talented pianist so fluent in French that Parisians never guessed she was American.

Her passion was exobiology, the study of life on other planets. She enjoyed brief success as a science writer until her career was cut short by MS.

She loved Mars, and wrote in Astronomy in December 1983: “Although the existence of water in liquid form on the martian surface is highly improbable at present, that does not exclude the possibility that it may exist either as ice or water vapor.” In May 2008 elated scientists reported that the Phoenix spacecraft had found ice on Mars.

In the June 1984 issue of Astronomy she warned that NASA’s decision not to sterilize the Galileo probe might result in contamination of the planet with terrestrial anaerobic bacteria. In 2003 NASA crash-landed Galileo into Jupiter to avoid the risk of contaminating Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa with earthly microbes.

She counted among her friends and colleagues Carl Sagan and Jacques Vallee (fictionalized as the character portrayed by François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Vallee granted her a rare interview which was published in the then-obscure MUFON Journal in May 1988; he liked it so much he republished it in the paperback version of his book Dimensions: a casebook of alien contact.

Linda asked to change her name to Desirée as MS began to destroy her mental functioning, perhaps memorializing the shift from the person she was. Among her last words were “MS is not me.”

An important focus of her life was Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which she practiced from her teen years until MS made her unable to recall how to chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.

Desirée was predeceased by her mother, Arlene Strand.

She is survived by her father, Neall Strand of Durham, sisters Justine Strand of Durham and Jane Hoffman of Bremerton, Washington; nieces Hailey Hoffman of Washington, DC, Miranda Jackson and grand niece Olivia Jackson of Bremerton, Washington; brother in law Jasiel de Oliveira and nephew Jackson de Oliveira of Durham.

A memorial gathering of family and friends is tentatively planned for June. Arrangements by the Cremation Society of the Carolinas. Online condolences @

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Student scams obit writers around the world

Shane Fitzgerald, a student at the University of Dublin, purposely posted a fake quotation on Wikipedia and attributed it to Maurice Jarre. When the Oscar-winning French composer died in March, the following quote appeared in hundreds of obits:

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear."

According to AFP, Fitzgerald said he started the hoax as an experiment for his research on globalisation. While I disdain his actions and believe he should feel ashamed for trivializing Jarre's death for his own gain, I also see this scam as a reminder for all of us to double- and triple-check our sources. Some people just can't be trusted.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Andrew Meacham's SPOW Convention report

Andrew Meacham, who writes Epilogue feature obits for the St. Petersburg Times, took notes as fast and as furiously as a court reporter - but by hand - at the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) Convention in Charlotte, N.C., April 23-25, 2009.

Here's a portion of the convention report he wrote for Sidebar, his paper's in-house newsletter:

My goal at this meeting of a new group for obituary writers was to absorb everything I could.

We discussed how to get ordinary people to supply those critical moments in a subject’s life that lead to a memorable obit.

We debated the relative merits of anonymous vs. bylined obits.

And we pondered which is better, the New York Times style of unrolling the deceased’s name and a descriptive clause in the lede and then “killing” the person off vs. delaying the death announcement to mid-story or the end.

A number of suggestions sounded familiar:
(1) Ask sources about the obstacles or challenges the deceased may have overcome.
(2) Look for the unusual, and ask explicitly for it.
(3) Don’t forget to ask about the deceased’s annoying, even obnoxious, traits.

Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, gave a pep talk about the tendency of people in all fields to grow exponentially while young, then flatten out for decades of professional competency.

“For real mastery,” she said, “the growth curve never has to stop.”

In a sign of the times, the conference attracted only about 15 people. But SPOW's obit contest drew scores of entries in the print, online and broadcast categories.

Two observations from that:
(1) The feature obit is popular with readers, whether the subjects are famous or not, and
(2) Obits translate well into video.

You don’t have to be Dateline or 60 Minutes to excel.

Dick Russ, managing editor of WKYC-Ch. 3 in Cleveland, won in the broadcast obit category with a piece on Indians pitcher-turned-announcer Herb Score, whose brilliant start ended when he took a line drive to the face.

Russ overlaid the narration with still photos, old baseball footage and a song about Score, who eventually returned to the mound but was never the same. His follow-through had changed, analysts said, and he seemed to turn slightly away from the plate at the end of each pitch, as if he were about to duck.

The obit ended with the question Cleveland fans have long asked about Score: What might have been?