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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Grave errors
Bernard Manning
Blessed with foresight... Bernard Manning wrote his own
Bernard Manning did more than most to seal his reputation after death by penning his own obituary. The deceased are rarely so co-operative, leaving obituary writers open to the pitfalls of their craft, as Bob Chaundy reports from the 9th Great Obituary Writers International Conference.

Nestling in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in up-state New York, is the village of Alfred. It takes its name from the Saxon King, of cake-burning fame, who ruled over the area in the 9th Century.

Well, nice thought. His real kingdom was Wessex in southern England, where the village of Alfred's earliest settlers are said to have hailed. The green undulating countryside apparently reminded them of home.

King Alfred's statue graces one of the village's two universities. But don't let that deceive you - this is such a small community its proud folk recently held a day of celebration in honour of their one traffic light.

...as I sense the affection from the mass of the British public, I know that I am the one having the last laugh
Extract from Bernard Manning's self-penned obituary

However, when it was announced a group of journalists was descending on their midst for the 9th Great Obituary Writers International Conference, one inhabitant was heard to remark, "The village is already dead, did they have to make it official?"

When we obit writers get together, we talk about the most esoteric subjects relevant to our craft. Every year, examples of the pitfalls we face raise their ugly, though sometimes amusing, heads.

Bernard Manning's example of writing his own obituary, which came too late to be discussed by delegates, clearly sidesteps many of the traps. But it sets an uncomfortable precedent - much more of that and we'd all be out of a job.

It helps, of course, to publish an obituary of someone who is actually dead. There are many more than Mark Twain whose deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

Conference perennial Andrew McKie, of the Daily Telegraph, wrote an obituary of the actress wife of the American cowboy singer, Tex Ritter a few years ago.

Tex Ritter
Tex Ritter, whose wife was prematurely despatched
He knew she was seriously ill in a nursing home and when told by one of the staff that she had "moved on", took this to mean she'd died. In fact, she'd been moved to a room upstairs.

If one has to beware of euphemisms, the obit writer has also to be wary of impostors. Last year, a fantasist named Paul van Valkenburgh died. He had claimed to have written the 60s pop song Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-dot Bikini under an alias, Paul Vance. He had done no such thing.

Nevertheless, this "fact" appeared in his obituary published in a Connecticut newspaper, was picked up by the Associated Press and published the world over.

The real Paul Vance is still alive and well and doing very nicely on the proceeds of this and other popular hits. Fearing that the royalty cheques might stop, he was forced to make strenuous efforts to set the record straight.

Truth hurts

Getting facts wrong is a pitfall of all journalism, but with obituaries, the upset caused can be all the greater when the family of the subject is grieving.

The statue of King Alfred at Alfred University, NY.
The statue of King Alfred presides over the campus
So, wrong spelling, misidentification of people in photographs, omission of survivors and so on, are all capable of causing great hurt.

Conversely, the truth can be painful too and can cause heated reaction.

One of the differences between an obituary crafted by a journalist, as against a paid obituary written by a family member or friend, is that the former seeks to give a deeper, more rounded and objective view of the person concerned.

Caillin Brown Leary told the conference about an obituary written for a local businessman in her former paper in Albany, NY, in which mention was made of a prison stretch he'd done for fraud.

One irate family member threatened to kill the paper's editor, even though the matter was in the public domain.

Extra tact is required when the subject has committed suicide or suffered mental illness. When Gail Sims, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that a certain doctor had taken his own life after suffering years of depression, the family harangued her for disclosing a secret.

Rocky ride

Her answer was to say to them "Do you want people to keep asking what happened? If you tell them the truth, their natural reaction will most likely be to say how sorry they are." That was exactly the result.

Coffin welcoming the obituarists to Alfred, NY
The conference was welcomed with a coffin
Part of the truth-seeking component of researching an obituary is to fend off the clichés that inevitably arrive thick and fast at the start. One experience by Jim Sheeler, the Pulitzer prize-winning obit writer for Denver Colorado's Rocky Mountain News, epitomised the problem.

Talking to buddies of a soldier killed in Iraq, he was met with the usual "He'd give you the shirt off his back", "He never had a bad word to say about anyone", "Nothing was too much trouble for him".

A bit more probing and one admitted that their friend was actually "an antisocial jerk".

But whatever steps one takes to avoid the man-traps that obituary writers face, their control over the process stops when they submit their final copy for publication.

It must have horrified Douglas Martin who wrote an obituary of a comic actor called Sid Raymond for the New York Times last year when his piece ended with the words:

"One of his last jokes involved a son sending a prostitute over to his widowed father, in his 90s, still a self-proclaimed ladies' man. She tells him she is his birthday present and will give him whatever he'd like. "I'll take the soup," he says.

It took a while for someone to point out the omission of a line in this corny joke. The prostitute should have added. "I'm here to give you super sex", at which the old man says "I'll take the soup."


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