Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ask Maureen. She knows.

Maureen O'Donnell, obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, shared the secret to creating a memorable obit to NPR this week.

"I think it's the little details that make history come alive. You know, this may be the man or woman who lives down the street, but they liberated a concentration camp, or they invented the beehive hairdo or they created the Playboy bunny logo in 30 minutes," she said.

Listen to the full interview here:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Introducing The Afterneath

Did you know there's an entire album of music that's inspired by obituaries?

Jascha Hoffman, a Brooklyn-based journalist and singer, is the talent behind "The Atferneath: Songs from Obituaries." Inspired by the subjects of the obits he penned for The New York Times, the album is filled with tracks about a euthanasia-boosting doctor, a reluctant nuclear scientist, a genocide survivor, a public servant who turned to public suicide, a boy dreaming of flying a model airplanes across the ocean, a love-struck cowboy and someone who experienced a late-career ping-pong comeback.

"...To my surprise, the strongest character on this album has turned out to be the 20th century," Hoffman wrote on his website. "From 1940s wartime hobbies, through the gender wars of the 1970s and tabloid kidnap and murder of the 80s -- you could say the album is a sort of technicolor obituary for an American era, one that is slowly fading."

Click here to preview a few tunes or buy the album on iTunes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The truth behind obituary writing

Founding SPOW member Kay Powell, the doyenne of the death beat and a woman who has made a "career of saying goodbye," had a lovely chat with Virginia Prescott of "Two Way Street" on Georgia Public Broadcasting last week.

Powell discussed a variety of obits and explained her purpose when writing one: "I wanted to bring the person back to life. I want to learn something about them that I didn't know, the general public probably didn't know, even members of the family didn't know. I wanted to be truthful."

Click here to hear the entire interview.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Which Obit Should Kids Read?

Of all the obituaries you've read - or written - what's one you'd pick for kids to read?

I'm a middle school teacher and an obituary enthusiast. I use obituaries in the classroom to introduce students to people who lived inspiring lives, worthy of emulation.*

We've read about the foster mother to ninety-eight children, the first woman to climb the highest mountain on each continent, and the man who invented the study of flags. (Over fifty obits so far - see them all at I'm especially interested in obits that may have received insufficient notice.

I'd be grateful if you shared your recommendation(s) in the comment section below.

Many thanks - and thank you for the work you do!

-Peter Sipe

*For more on obituaries' instructional merit, see my Boston Herald op-ed "Obituaries Teach Life's Lessons."

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The intriguing language of obits

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers has long had an international presence. While most of our members live and work in the U.S., many others hail from Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

One SPOW member, Jonathan Semmler, a professor of Portuguese and literature in Brazil, recently published the article, "The Discursive Building of the Brazilian Obituary in the Folha de S. Paulo Newspaper" in the Brazilian scientific journal Forum Linguistico.

Semmler analyzed 2,284 obituaries that appeared in the newspaper between 2007 and 2012 for stylistic, thematic and compositional characteristics. After much study, he described the Brazilian obituary "as an informative and utilitarian journalism genre that uses New Journalism as a stylistic resource in order to soften the mourning of someone’s death by celebrating the person’s life."

Click here (PDF) to read his full paper.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

When death notices speak ill of the dead

Richard Chin of the Star Tribune tackled the topic of families purchasing death notices that air dirty laundry and settle scores in newsprint.

"Obituaries say much more than who died and where to send flowers," he wrote. "They hold a mirror up to the living, revealing what we think constitutes a well-lived life. They also present a cautionary tale of what not to do if you want to avoid a postmortem write-up that has you spinning in the grave."

Click here to read his story.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Some of the best obits are about people who should've been known

Harrison Smith, one of the top obituary writers in the U.S. and a SPOW member, appeared on the Remembering the Passed podcast this week to discuss his obit of Ted Dabney.

Dabney, who died on May 26 at the age of 81, was a largely self-taught electrical engineer and the co-founder of Atari, Inc. He developed the basics of video circuitry principles that were used for Pong, one of the first and most successful arcade games, but until about a decade ago, Dabney's achievements in the world of video gaming were largely overlooked.

Click here to read Smith's wonderful obituary of Dabney, then check out the discussion of his life below:

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

LISTEN: Remembering the passed

Cory Franklin was the director of Medical Intensive Care at Cook County (Ill.) Hospital for 25 years. Since retiring, he's contributed articles to the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Washington Post and The Chicago Sun-Times. Franklin is also the host of the podcast, Remembering the Passed, which discusses the role of notable people who have died recently on our history, society or culture. Here are the latest episodes:

Friday, June 08, 2018

The art of obituary writing

How does a journalist sum up in one story the impact of a lifetime?

Well, for Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O'Donnell and columnist/obituary writer Neil Steinberg, it involves connecting the dots between past and present.

"This history is all around us, and it connects everyone," O'Donnell said. "It connects us to the past. It connects us to survival, it connects us to creativity, inspiration."

Watch their full interview below:

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Quote of the week

"It is not our intent to honor the dead; we leave the tributes to the eulogists. We seek only to report deaths and to sum up lives, illuminating why, in our judgment, those lives were significant. The justification for the obituary is in the story it tells." --William McDonald

Sunday, June 03, 2018

A change in leadership

I'm thrilled to announce that The Society of Professional Obituary Writers has a new leader. Adam Bernstein, obituary editor for The Washington Post, was nominated for the position and has kindly accepted the responsibility.

Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in The Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.” He is featured in Marilyn Johnson’s book about the obit-writing craft, “The Dead Beat.”

Among the obituaries Bernstein has written, his favorites are those of Edward von Kloberg III, the lobbyist for dictators and despots who embraced the slogan “shame is for sissies”; and the filmmaker Billy Wilder, who wooed his future wife with the line, “I’d worship the ground you walked on, if only you lived in a better neighborhood.”

Perhaps wisely, Bernstein never tried to top Wilder when wooing his own future wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Marina Walker Guevara. They have two children, Santiago and Mia.

As the fourth president of SPOW, Adam has seen wonderful examples of leadership. Alana Baranick, Andrew Meacham and Maureen O'Donnell all put their own stamp on the society and helped it to flourish. I have no doubt that Bernstein will lead us well.

Monday, April 09, 2018

What makes Irish eyes smile

SPOW President Maureen O'Donnell once had a professor who told her: "There is an Irish obsession with knowing who died." And it's true! While looking into the nicknames for obits, O'Donnell discovered they were also called:

  • The Irish Scratch Sheet
  • The Irish Sports Pages
  • The Irish Racing Form
  • The Irish Comics

Inspired by these discoveries, Maureen wrote an article for the Chicago Sun-Times about the tradition. Click here to learn more.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Quote of the week

"I love reading the obituaries. On the weekend, hot coffee, feet up, I quietly read. I always finish with a deep contented sigh. One morning I told my husband I felt I had met many new friends. Too bad, said he, that they all died." --Bonnie Brown

Monday, March 19, 2018

Covering suicide in the obits

Although this is a difficult topic to cover, obituary writers must not shy away from listing a cause of death, no matter how sensitive. However, there are ways to properly handle such stories with care and compassion.

As a service to the news media, the Canadian Association For Suicide Prevention has developed a series of guidelines to help present information about suicide in a responsible manner.

FMI: Click here.

(h/t Ron Csillag)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Got questions about obituary writing?