Saturday, December 05, 2015

Quote of the day

"Every morning I wake up and read the obituaries. And if I'm not in 'em, I have breakfast."
--Carl Reiner

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dying Words Reach A New Audience

Jeff Schmalz, The New York Times reporter who found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, is the subject of a new book and radio documentary titled “Dying Words.” Before Schmalz died in 1993 of complications of the disease, the 39-year-old journalist helped to change how the paper of record viewed gay people.

Between Nov. 15, 2015 and Jan. 10, 2016, the documentary will air on NPR affiliate stations across the U.S. Here is a list of locations and air dates. Or click below to listen to “Dying Words" now.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Attn: Someone Has Died

"It is a cruel thing, this wheel of obituary fortune. You can never be assured that your passage to eternal bliss will get the attention it deserves." --Thomas Vinciguerra

Sunday, September 20, 2015

RIP Leonard Neft

Leonard Neft, a former obituary writer for the San Jose Mercury News, was identified this week as the third victim of a wildfire tearing through Northern California. He was 69.

In 1983, Neft told the Mercury News' Sunday magazine that despite tradition, obits shouldn't be reserved for famous people.

"I feel I can do an obit on a housewife who's never done anything," Neft said in the article. "It's a challenge to find out what people did that was interesting in their lives."

FMI: Click here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Escaping to the death beat

What prompted Steve Miller to become an obituary writer? The September 11th terrorist attacks. In fact, he was in the South Tower working as a Wall Street technologist that day. Here’s his story.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Heather Lende Finds the Good

Two authors, one great interview in Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat ...etc., interviews Heather Lende about her newest book, Find The Good. Both women are standouts in the obits world. Do yourself a favor and read the interview. Then read the book.

Click here for the interview.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What life is like for the person who writes death notices

In the past 15 years, many newspapers have laid off their obituary writers, transferred these experienced journalists to other beats or pushed them out of the business with early retirement demands and buyouts. Why pay a reporter to write a fair and balanced story about someone's life when the family will pay money -- often a lot of money -- for a death notice?

But did you know that the person in the classified department who's paid to type those profitable ads also faces backlash about the publication's cash flow problems? As Adam Matcho noted in this essay for XOJane:

[My boss] asked if deaths were down this year in Westmoreland County, because revenue is down, and is that maybe something I would want to look into? He wanted me to email him back.

My boss and I, we’ve gone rounds on this before. He understands I am more concerned about not transposing two letters in one of those crazy last names from Polish Hill than how much money the paper makes. He understands people have to die for this department to make money. He understands I do not consider myself a salesperson. I consider myself an aide capable of typing 70 words per minute, a guide for people who are raw; people who react emotionally and hold fiercely to what they have left of the dead.

Click here to read the rest of Matcho's story.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The power of the last word

"Those who write about the dead face a similar conundrum: not only whether but how we should portray them. There seems to be an unspoken code, but it’s vague, nothing more than an urging to tread carefully. The code, if it exists at all, is an acknowledgment that those who write about the dead wield tremendous power—power that is largely uncontested. The dead can’t call up and contradict you; they can offer no alternate story. There is only interpretation and the potential to mangle. The people who write about the dead are playing with the only thing the dead have left—the stories we tell about them." --Laura Smith, The Paris Review

What is your code?

Monday, July 06, 2015

Tweet, tweet, we now tweet

Members of The Society of Professional Obituary Writers keep in touch in many ways. There's the website, this blog, our private Facebook page and the SPOW email. Now, per member request, SPOW has its very own Twitter page:

If you are on Twitter, please follow @obituarywriters.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

SPOW Elects New President

Maureen O'Donnell, award-winning obituary reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been elected president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW).

SPOW is a professional organization for folks who write about the dead for a living. Since 2007, the society has provided professional training and resources to help writers develop reporting, interviewing, writing and new media skills for creating outstanding obituaries.

O'Donnell became the newspaper's obituary writer in 2009 after 20 years as a general assignment reporter, during which she wrote about crumbling conditions in Chicago schools, Mississippi River flooding, the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the Jeffrey Dahmer slayings. Before joining the Sun-Times, she was a reporter and editor at the City News Bureau of Chicago; a criminal courts reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, and an associate editor at Adweek magazine.

A Chicago native and graduate of Loyola University's Mundelein College, her journalism awards include the Chicago Headline Club's Anne Keegan Award, SPOW awards for obituary-writing, the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association public service reporting award, the Illinois Gold Bell Award from the Mental Health Association in Illinois and a Lisagor award. She believes obituaries have some of the best writing in newspapers and online, and that they’re both send-offs and storytelling from eyewitnesses to history.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Focusing On The Sunny Side Of Obituary Writing

Author and journalist Heather Lende has spent nearly 20 years writing obituaries. Working for the Chillkat Valley News, a small newspaper in Haines, Alaska, has given her a unique insight into the community she covers and inspired her to write several books.

In her latest tome, "Find the Good," Lende shares some of the life lessons she's learned in the process of her work.

"Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news," she wrote. "It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice -- and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced -- has made my life more meaningful."

Lende recently appeared on "A Beautiful World," a news program in Saint Paul, Minn., that focuses on inspirational stories from around the globe. You can listen to the extended interview here:

Want to win a copy of Lende's book? SPOW is giving away three free copies. To enter the drawing, simply send us an email and include your email and mailing addresses in the body as well as your reading format preference (ebook or hardcover). Deadline is June 30, 2015. Winners will be randomly chosen from all complete entries, and announced on The Obituary Forum.

Friday, May 29, 2015

From Obits To Arts, With Love

Andrew Meacham is stepping down, both from his position as SPOW's president and as the writer of the Tampa Bay Times' Epilogue obituary feature. Thankfully, he has agreed to remain an active member of the society, for which we are all very grateful.

As for his work with the newspaper, Meacham plans to transition to a different position, that of performing arts critic.

In his latest column, Meacham explained how much he enjoyed working on the death beat.

"Writing these obituaries — more than 1,000 in all — has been the best experience of my career," he wrote. "People have invited me into their homes, where they shared scrapbooks and old letters and memories of recently departed loved ones. It is impossible to overstate the graciousness I have experienced from these families at the worst times of their lives, or my gratitude at being able to tell those stories."

We all wish him great success in his new job.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Congrats To Maureen O'Donnell

Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O'Donnell won the Anne Keegan Award on Friday for her “gifts of inquisitiveness and eye for the perfect anecdote.”

The honor, given by the Chicago Headline Club and named for the late Chicago Tribune columnist, was established in 2012 to recognize journalists “who tell stories of ordinary people in extraordinarily well-reported and well-written prose.”

Click here for more.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

RIP Alana Baranick

It is with a sad heart that I share this news.

Alana Baranick, founder of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and a long-time contributor to this forum, died on April 10 of cancer. She was 65.

Alana was an award-winning journalist who penned nearly 2,000 obituaries. She was also the co-author of "Life on the Death Beat," a champion of obituary writers and a dear friend.

Click here to read the wonderful obituary penned by Leila Atassi for The Plain Dealer.

Farewell, Alana. And rest in peace.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Thinking about obits, graphically

Early this morning, The Economist tweeted this chart to accompany its obituary of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

I admit, I haven't given much thought to showing the deceased's life in graphics. What are some interesting charts, maps and infographics you've used to accompany your stories?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Unique Cause Of Death Listed In Family-Written Obit

When Stephan Merrill of Winter Haven, Fla., died earlier this month, his family didn't have an exact cause of death to list in his newspaper obituary. So they made one up, and had a bit of fun with it.

“It was worth it for the family. It was the only time the family was able to laugh in days,” Merrill’s close friend, Andrew Albreacht, told the local ABC affiliate WFTS. “We were all laughing, and it made the situation easier to deal with.”

Click here for more.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Obituary Writing: A Complex System Of Building Up Trust

Kay Powell, retired obituary writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently had a delightful chat with Bill Nigut on the radio program "Two Way Street." Click below to get the inside scoop on her writing process and to hear a few anecdotes about the ordinary people who were the subjects of her stories.