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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Bringing the dead to life
By Bob Chaundy
BBC News profiles unit

An obit is 'an act of reverence'
It's not all doom and gloom when top obituary writers gather for their annual international conference. So what do people who spend their days retelling past lives talk about?

Bringing the dead to life takes a certain talent, for the obit pages in many newspapers are as popular as the sport section. And it was the sensibilities required for the job under discussion at the 8th Great Obituary Writers International Conference.

The traditional venue for these obituarist gatherings is the old Historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, graced in the past by such wild western luminaries as Hard Nose Kate, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday.

The event was started by Carolyn Gilbert - a dedicated reader rather than writer of obits - nine years ago when she was dared to invite purveyors of the obit art to talk about their work and share their experiences.

The event has grown over the years and this year 45 writers from the US and Europe descended on the small New Mexican outpost for their eighth conference.

"We have helped lift obit writers from the shadows," says Ms Gilbert. As if to prove it, two documentary film crews were recording the proceedings.

Irreverence and wit

There is no doubt obituaries are in rude health today. In the UK, a revolution took place in newspaper obits in the mid-1980s.

The Independent began using by-lines which led to more opinionated pieces. The Daily Telegraph's then obituary editor, Hugh Massingberd, introduced a PG Wodehouse-style irreverence and gossip into his paper's obits.

The Daily Telegraph's editor, Andrew McKie, poses in cowboy hat
The Telegraph's Andrew McKie
The tradition has been ably carried on by the paper's current flamboyant obits editor, Andrew McKie. His favourite opening concerned an eccentric performer.

"Tiny Tim, the American pop singer who has died aged 62, specialised in horrendous falsetto vocalisations of sentimental songs and cultivated an appearance of utter ghastliness to match."

The other UK broadsheets upped their obits too as part of a circulation war. The result has been a qualitative improvement that makes obits as popular as the sports pages.

Any habitual reader of obituaries will tell you there's seldom anything morbid about the pastime. Obits are - more often than not - teeming with life, be it of a celebrity or common man or woman.

Lives less ordinary

As New York writer and obit devotee Marilyn Johnson puts it, "a good obit is an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died, but also an act of defiance, a fist waved at God or the stars".

A good obit is an act of reverence but also an act of defiance, a fist waved at God or the stars
Marilyn Johnson
At the conference, Ms Johnson read extracts from her book, The Dead Beat, which is stuffed full of anecdotes and analysis surrounding obituaries and their writers, as well as wonderful examples of their art.

Take a Douglas Martin-penned obit in the New York Times. "Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra-size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, has died. She was 95 and a 34B."

According to Professor Nigel Starck, who has written a thesis on obituaries, only about 20% of obits feature women. To address this imbalance obit writer Kay Powell says her newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has made a point of focusing on women in their obituaries, often to great effect, such as this by Holly Crenshaw.

"Carole Connely, 68: Artist and prankster. If her husband dozed off early, she handed out washable markers to her children to decorate him while he slept. 'Carole was a mystery to me,' said her husband who married her three months after their first date in 1960. 'There was a lot about her that I never fathomed.'"

Pulitzer winner

To remind us that obituaries are not all laughs, Jim Sheeler, an obit writer on Denver's Colorado's Rocky Mountain News gave heart-rending examples of his specialisation, obituaries of soldiers killed in action.

Burial at Arlington National Cemetery
Retelling a life cut short
Sheeler won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his year-long account of the unenviable task faced by Major Steve Beck of the US Marines of informing families their loved one has died.

"On the tarmac, Katherine Cathey wrapped her arm around the major's, steadying herself. Then her eyes locked on the cargo hold and the flag-draped casket. Inside the plane, they couldn't hear the screams."

Much of the talk at the conference concerned such esoteric questions as whether one should "out" a subject's sexuality when he or she never did during their lifetime, how best to elicit important information from grieving relatives, how much should an obit address the wishes of the survivors, and how to tackle the sensitive question of suicides.

The star of the obituary has never been higher. BBC radio now has two programmes devoted to obituaries in addition to its news obits. When the Daily Telegraph underwent a recent cull of journalists, the obit department was spared since their output was among the paper's most popular fare.

Whether as a celebration or an appraisal of a life, obituaries tell a story, and people love listening to good stories well told. As Ms Johnson says, "It's a good time to die."


The Telegraph obit page is a fascinating read most days. They seem to concentrate on people who have led interesting lives whether they are famous or not. As to whether it is right to "out" someone, is this not done by euphemism (i.e. He never married)?
Niall, London, UK

As a former assistant publisher and editor of the Stouffville, Ontario, Tribune, I first cut my teeth in the field of journalism, writing obituaries, back in 1951. It's been said that obituaries are the best read items in any (weekly) newspaper, and I believe it. In death as in life, everyone had/has a story to tell. Why should such stories be interred with the story-teller? They shouldn't. After 55 years, I'm still writing obituaries, even contemplating writing my own.
Jim Thomas, Stouffville, Ontario, Canada

I think the most candid and honestly written obituary is what Lord Byron wrote about the grave of Viscount Castlereagh, Robert Stewart:

Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and p***
Stephen Buxton, Coventry, UK, thelbiq.co.uk

I rarely write obituaries, but as editor of a Church Magazine I regularly commission them. I understand that obituaries of many famous people are written before their death using information gleaned from publications such as Who's Who, newspaper archives etc. Since it would be crass in the extreme to do this within a church setting, I have the job of finding someone who isn't too close to the person that they are too griefstricken to write an obituary, but not so distant they didnt know the person well. But if I really struggle, I ask the minister for information when he has done the funeral visit. Oh - and we feature far more obits for females, since more women attend church than men. And more are written by women too.
Liz Parkinson, Stockport

A very good article. Its always interesting to have an insight into the work and efforts of others. The obituary writers have the unenviable task of conveying so much about an individual's life in such little space and I believe they do a good job.
Dammy Pinheiro, Dartford, England

Perhaps to save the money they would pay a professional editor, our local city newspaper in Trenton, NJ has resorted to letting the family members write large sections of obits. The result is sometimes funny or touching, but most often, boring. The turgid prose reveals more about the writer's ego than the person who died. However, the occasional insightful obit by a relative is still better than the paper's previous policy of having the funeral home director do it.
Bruce Conord, Hightsown, NJ USA

Obituaries can be fascinating to read. By reading them you can see how the comman man and woman have experienced events such as World War II, changed vocations with the times, taken chances that did or didn't pan out, been caught up in history and even made history. But having your life re-written in an untruthful way would be the ultimate libel that could not be redressed.
Jeremy, Atlanta, Georgia

I am away to become a (mature) journalism student and it has just occurred to me, after reading this story, how much I would like to write obits. We all read the obit for someone we have known, even though we knew them very well and are unlikely to get additional information. Maybe it is because we like to see people┐s names in print - an accomplishment in death that someone didn't necessarily have in life. Maybe it's because we are trying to squeeze every last drop of life out of that person. Whatever the reason, I find them fascinating. I can only hope that local papers start to take heed of their national counterparts and inject a touch more humanity into these paper and ink tombstones.
Suzanna Atkinson, Aberdeen

A very good article. There is no doubt in my mind that Hugh Massingberd was the master of them all in the art of obit writing. I have read several books containing his work, and they are among the most entertaining, well-written and absorbing pieces of literature I have ever read. I have on the coffee table in the living room of our home, my own folder containing copies of obits he wrote about many of Britain's WW2 military and civilian men and women, and the kind of exploits and adventures in which they were involved. The excitement, the humour [often tongue-in-cheek], the complete fascination which encapsule these mini - and complete - biographies make each one of them a work of art.
Anthony Johansen, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Where exactly did this whole "subculture" come from? Who decided to make the perspective of an obituarist look "hip?" I work at a newspaper and it's a tedious, highly impersonal, quite often careless affair to write an obituary. We're told to consult old newspaper clippings and regurgitate the facts, without any "fluff." The only time I've seen anyone write something with any substance was when an employee of the same paper passed away, and that was written by one of the employee's oldest friends.

In my experience, writing obituaries requires no creative talent at all. This is despite the fact that many of us who are responsible for this supposed "art" would like to see it become more interesting. Coincidentally, where are the authors getting this statistic that obits are read as often as the sports page? The only concerned phone calls or e-mails I ever get about obits are almost always concerning technical issues. Then again, it's hard to discuss such work with anyone when the only byline allowed is "Staff Report". More often than not, we have to completely cut out entire full-length obituaries of people who could easily be considered local celebrities or noteworthy characters, in order to make room for more advertising.
Anonymous, Charleston, SC

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