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Funny obits bring new life to a dying art

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
updated 7:56 PM EDT, Tue July 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Humorous death notices are breathing new life into the art of obituary writing
  • Once stuffy tributes to important people, obits now follow literary traditions
  • They are gaining new popularity online as certain obits go viral
  • The Society of Professional Obituary Writers met again this year after a hiatus

Toronto, Canada (CNN) -- Their loved one isn't dead yet but sure seems to be nearly departed. So you could almost hear the organ and smell the lilies as the obit writers gathered and paid their respects to a dying art.

They drew comfort from one another as only people who write about the dead for a living can -- sharing cocktails and gallows humor on a Friday night in June, down in the rathskeller of an historic mansion. A band called Canuckistan played hippie-era classics by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band (RIP, Levon Helm, 1940-2012.)

As the writers nibbled and quaffed, they commiserated about the challenges of staying employed and swapped stories about their favorite obits: the bowlegged ballerina; the bra fitter; the nature photographer who arrived on this Earth a he and departed a she.

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If it weren't for the obit writers, the world might not know about those people.

Celebrities, heads of state and captains of industry will always get their monuments and grand goodbyes. But the little people, if they're lucky, get a tidy 1,000-word sendoff from a skilled obit writer.

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It helps if that writer comes with an appreciation for the humanity in a death notice about a woman survived by "her son who loved and cared for her," a daughter who "betrayed her trust" and another son who "broke her heart." It also helps if the writer has an ear for what the neighbors have to say about a regular guy who was "a good pool player, had an eye for women and never broke his word."

The passing of an era

It used to be that the writer worked for a newspaper, but not so much anymore. The newspaper business has been writing its own obituary for more than a decade. Memorial websites and do-it-yourself obit kits are springing up to take its place. They're even talking about putting bar codes on tombstones that can be scanned onto smartphones to conjure up video farewell messages from the deceased.

Words such as dusty, musty and fusty come to mind when you think about obituary writers, if you think about them at all. But the writers who attended this conference were an eclectic bunch. They call themselves "Deadheads," but they are not to be confused with the tie-dyed, patchouli-scented followers of the band Grateful Dead.

Their ranks include several published authors; one of the original investors of the board game Trivial Pursuit; and the Blogger of Death, who also works the overnight shift at The Huffington Post. Also among them were award-winning obituary writers from big city newspapers in Chicago, Toronto and Boston.

Only one person dressed in black -- and that was a top garnished with silvery glitter, suitable for the dance floor. It was worn by Maureen O'Donnell, who grew up in the same neighborhood as serial killer John Wayne Gacy and covered the case of another infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. It seemed a natural transition from the crime beat to the death beat.

O'Donnell is known for the poignancy of her obits for the Chicago Sun-Times. Among her favorites are the inseparable couple, married 62 years, who died just hours apart. And then there's the outdoorsman who survived two attacks by grizzly bears but died peacefully in his own bed.

The new media obit queen, Jade Walker, writes The Blog of Death and is so fascinated by the end-of-life rituals that she exchanged her wedding vows in a cemetery, not far from the grave of the poet Robert Frost.

The rise of the obituary

The literary tradition wasn't always a fixture on the obit page. For years, obits were considered low-end real estate, a corner of the paper the old folks checked to see whom they'd outlasted. The obit desk was where newsrooms broke in the newbies and put the burnouts out to pasture.

Certainly that's what they thought they were doing with Jim Nicholson, an investigative reporter from Philadelphia who got on the wrong side of his publisher by looking into an in-house murder with the same zeal he pursued mobsters and biker gangs. Nicholson was banished to Siberia -- the New Jersey suburbs -- and even worked out of his car for a while.

In 1982, the editors at The Philadelphia Daily News asked Nicholson if he'd like to launch an obits page. He jumped at the chance.

It wasn't a high-profile assignment, not yet, but it was his ticket out of exile. The first thing he did was strip away the piety and saccharine. He wasn't interested in polishing halos. Instead, he used his finely honed investigative skills to dig out the details he needed to portray the dearly departed as they truly were, warts and all.

Consider Christopher J. Kelly. The son of a federal judge was shot to death at a tavern in the city's Overbrook neighborhood. Nicholson later learned that the judge kept a copy of the obit in his desk drawer for years, often taking it out to read during court breaks.

"Every family of any size has one: the uncrowned prince or princess who does not seek special stature but achieves it nevertheless," Nicholson wrote. "It is not always the oldest, nor the best-looking nor the most successful. Chris Kelly was the favorite uncle, the trusted brother, the loyal son. He would have shunned such descriptions."

Most people might view Kelly, who lived with his parents and never married or finished college, as a man of meager accomplishments. Not Nicholson.

"A special person? Society today does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side. But the son of U.S. District Court Judge James McGirr Kelly became exceptional by virtue of his plain and honest choices and the character which drove them. ... He had an apartment for a while, but decided to move back with his parents. For no other reason than because he loved them and they loved him."

You just had to be interesting

Nicholson's Runyonesque character studies brought in the writing awards and secured him a modicum of fame as the godfather of the Joe Sixpack obit. You no longer needed to be a big shot to get a proper, literary sendoff. You just had to be interesting, and Nicholson found something interesting about nearly everybody.

He didn't attend this year's conference in Toronto, but he has been a regular in the past -- and he is revered by the others. Andrew Meacham, who writes about dearly departed Floridians for the Tampa Bay Times, considers Nicholson his mentor.

I reached out to The Great One by e-mail, and he was happy to talk obits and why people are fascinated by them. Most people get three opportunities to make the local news, he said: Birth, marriage and death.

Hatch, match and dispatch.

"Obits bring the deceased out onto the public stage, many for the first and only time, to give them a grand goodbye and in effect, decree to all the readers that this was a life well lived," he explained. "It is a public validation."

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kay Powell became the South's Jim Nicholson, chronicling the life and times of a Klansman-turned-civil-rights-activist, a plumbing contractor who happened to be chief magistrate of a group of Gypsies and the inglorious demise of a celestial body:

"Pluto the Planet, 76, died Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, when it was killed by the International Astronomical Union --- downgraded to a lowly 'dwarf planet.' No memorial service is planned, because it's been several years since astronomers considered Pluto a real planet."

Powell is a natural-born storyteller, in the Southern tradition. She has an eye for characters and for the telling one-liner, which she delivers with a down-home accent and throaty chuckle. She is proud of winning the confidence of the black-owned funeral homes in Georgia, which wasn't easy but came in handy when the rappers started warring with each other. She retired four years ago.

Some professionals avoid writing obits about family members and people they know. But Powell embraced writing her mama's obit, using a hybrid of neutral editorial voice and family-style death notice writing to weave in telling details about a Southern lady who enjoyed church meetings and entertaining.

Juanita Powell took in friends, relatives and strays alike: "In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company," her daughter wrote.

And there was no gilding the lily: "I don't know that it's a wart," Powell said, "but I did include Mama's poker-playing in her obit. The preacher at her funeral said he had been a Methodist preacher for 43 years and never knew what the United Methodist Women do at their meetings. After reading my obit for Mama, he said he now knows: They are playing poker."

Read an obit, learn the lay of the land

Reading obits and paid death notices is a way to take a region's pulse: In the South, it doesn't take long to notice how many people go "home" to be with Jesus. In the Northeast, the ritual of one's demise is much less flowery. People die, there's a viewing, alcoholic drinks are consumed and then they are buried, after which more adult beverages are served.

Fred Clark had his ashes fired from a cannon into Virginia's Great Wicomico River. In lieu of flowers, his obit said, he wanted mourners to "get rip-roaring drunk at home with someone you love."

In California, they are fond of celebrating lives, cremating remains and scattering them in the ocean with the help of the Neptune Society. For those who don't opt for cremation, it is not uncommon to see mourners pour a cold beer or a bottle of cognac over a grave -- a tribute borrowed from the homeboy gang culture.

Many obit writers look to London and The Daily Telegraph's obits desk, launched in 1986, for inspiration. The Telegraph is legendary for its deliciously droll send-offs. Consider: "Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 79, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things -- a whore and a spy -- 'and there were attempts to make me both,' she once wrote."

Telegraph Obituary Editor Hugh Massingberd, often referred to as "Massivesnob," delighted in details -- the more scurrilous the better. Pressed by his superiors to follow the American style of reporting the cause of death, Massingberd responded with the obituary of a man who died when his penile implant ruptured.

Read The Telegraph's obit for Hugh Massingberd

The New York Times has long been home to the literary, whimsical obit.

The genre was polished by the masters Alden Whitman and Robert McG. Thomas Jr. -- McG. for short. (Near the top of everyone's list is the paper's Portraits of Grief, thumbnail portraits of the people missing in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center. But that project was produced by the news staff of the Metro desk, not the obits page.)

Even at the Times, it wasn't so long ago that the obit page was viewed disdainfully as "the Irish sports pages," according to "The Dead Beat," written by Marilyn Johnson and published in 2006.

That was the year humor columnist Art Buchwald announced his own death in a video obit, part of the "The Last Word" series: "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died." The video includes narration by reporter Tim Weiner, and Buchwald's musings about his life. It was ahead of its time and showed how far the paper's obituary page had come.

Now, although an obit subject must still be deemed newsworthy, colorful characters regularly join the stuffy, important people -- thanks to deft writers such as the Times' Margalit Fox. Trained as a linguist, Fox has been writing obits for nearly nine years and seems to specialize in inventors -- of the Frisbee, the crash test dummy, the Etch-a-Sketch and the Magic Fingers vibrating bed, to name a few. But she also writes the obits that people share. Consider John Fairfax.

"John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74," reads the headline over the photo of the waving, shirtless man. He was dashingly handsome, and so of course it caught my attention. And then I read the first line: "He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there."

Delightful. But so was the second line: "He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible." And so it went, one delicious phrase tumbling into the next: "At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle. At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar." At the very end of his bracing run, he passed the time playing baccarat, the game of James Bond.

I posted the obit on my Facebook page and the response was overwhelming. There were other fans of the quirky obit out there. Who knew?

A few weeks later, a reporter friend graced my Facebook wall with the death notice of Michael "Flathead" Blanchard, who "wanted it known that he died as a result of being stubborn, refusing to follow doctors' orders and raising hell for more than six decades." He listed his hobbies as "booze, guns, cars and younger women." He informed the world that "Baba Yaga can kiss his butt," and that "many of his childhood friends that weren't killed in Vietnam went on to become criminals, prostitutes and/or Democrats."

Facebook: Obits' new stomping grounds

Facebook has become central receiving for quirky obits. That's how I got to know Harry Weathersby Stamps, Toni Larroux, the bra lady and the rocket scientist.

Stamps, who lived in Mississippi, is perhaps best known as the man who hated daylight saving time.

His obit was written by his daughter, a lawyer from Dallas, and opens with this line: "Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies' man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013."

It noted his gustatory passions: "He had a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna [Vi-e-na] sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread." And, it noted that "the women in his life were numerous. He particularly fancied smart women."

Stamps considered daylight saving time to be "the devil's time," and died the day before he would have had to "spring forward" and set the clocks ahead an hour. "This can only be viewed as his final protest," the family's obituary noted.

The obit went viral, and it can safely be said that more people knew Harry Stamps in death than in life. Hayes Ferguson at Legacy.com, which aggregates newspaper obituaries, said Stamps so far has received more than 750,000 page views.

Toni Larroux's family-written obit may have blurred the lines between fact and fiction, but it, too, was a hoot. It was written by her children in a hospital cafeteria as she lay dying. They insisted that it was the way she'd want to be remembered:

"Waffle House lost a loyal customer on April 30, 2013. Antonia W. "Toni" Larroux died after a battle with multiple illnesses: lupus, rickets, scurvy, kidney disease and feline leukemia. She had previously conquered polio as a child contributing to her unusually petite ankles and the nickname "polio legs" given to her by her ex-husband, Jean F. Larroux, Jr."

Obits for the bra lady and the rocket scientist were written by the same New York Times scribe, Douglas Martin. The bra lady's obit, clever and uncontroversial, went like this: "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, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."

But the rocket scientist's obit caused an outcry that led the editors to take the rare step of changing the lead sentence in a published obit.

The original seemed to rhapsodize about Yvonne Brill's domestic skills at the expense of her career as, well, a rocket scientist: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

Howls of protest took the beef stronganoff off the menu as the obit was changed to read: "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. "The world's best mom," her son Matthew said."

The controversy was a big topic of discussion at the conference. Was it sexist to mention her beef stroganoff before the professional barriers she broke? And was that sexism deliberate?

The obit writers believe it was a misguided attempt at a literary twist. Tom Hawthorn and Bryan Marquard, who both were honored with "Grimmies," the group's equivalent of an Oscar, wondered if the outcry would have been as pitched if a woman's byline, say Margalit Fox's, topped the obit.

The women, who vastly outnumbered the men at the conference, insisted that it would.

Obituary as essay

And then there was Shelagh Gordon, a 55-year-old woman who was the subject of a lengthy, 5,000-word obituary in the Toronto Star last year. It was meant as an experiment in narrative journalism, as a way to examine an ordinary life in search of the extraordinary.

"I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral," began columnist Catherine Porter, the lead writer in an ambitious team effort involving 20 staffers. "She was soap-and-water beautiful, vital, unassuming and funny without trying to be. I could feel her spirit tripping over a purse in the funeral hall and then laughing from the floor."

Shelagh had never married. She grew up in a large, loud family; nobody noticed until she was 8 that she was deaf in one ear. As an adult, she indulged herself each afternoon in an hourlong bath, reading novels and eating orange slices. She was probably depressed, Porter learned. But she was unfailing kind, as Porter described it, "freshly-in-love thoughtful." And that kindness touched a lot of people.

"She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she'd have been considered a spinster -- no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews and her "life partner" -- a gay man -- who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her wearing matching reading glasses."

Porter, who spoke at the conference, said telling Shelagh's story changed her. She recalled going through Shelagh's closet, trying on her shoes to better understand her. It was difficult it to understand how someone so outwardly loving and generous with family and friends also could keep herself closed off, failing to find a spouse or make a mark in the working world.

Whither the obituary writer?

The trade of writing obits is in transition. More than half of the obit writers at the conference have taken buyouts, retired or been pushed out of newsrooms across the United States and Canada. In the wake of such carnage, last year's conference was canceled altogether.

People who write obits see their work as noble rather than morbid. After all, the business part of an obit -- the death -- is usually dealt with quickly, with a single line. So-and-so died unexpectedly at home at the age of 108, for example. And then it's on to the good stuff, the details of ordinary life.

Over the years, the great American novel has, at various times, been declared dead. So have newspapers -- and reading altogether. And yet, here you are, right now, at this place near the end of a written story about writing and dead people. So what does that say? Are obits, the nonfiction poetry of the dead, the key to keeping the written word alive?

The simple fact is people love reading, sharing and commenting on obits. Surveys, including those by Northwestern University's Readership Institute, quantify the phenomenon, as do Harry Stamps, Toni Larroux and the other obits that recently have gone viral online. And where there's an audience, there's opportunity, says the Blogger of Death.

Professional obit writers will always be in demand, Jade Walker believes, "because people keep on dying."

Indeed, some 540 people died around the world while you were reading this story.

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