Wick Communications

Bringing the dead to life

In Obituaries on 4 Nov 2010 at 4:27 pm

Halloween is over, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about dead people. The obituary page was once one of the most literary stops on the journey through any newspaper. Those beautiful remembrances have largely succumbed to pablum written off of templates by mortuary clerks on behalf of grieving families or less-than articulate rambles written by the grieving relatives themselves.

They still can be terrific. Sometimes we at the Half Moon Bay Review get amazing memorials from the families.

Anyway, as a Kicker exclusive, former journalism professor Garrett Ray offered a trio of great books about obit writing.

  • “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,” by Marilyn Johnson;
  • “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers,” by Alana Baranick, Jim Sheeler, and Stephen Miller; and …
  • “Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives,” by Jim Sheeler.

Garrett writes:

“Alas, story-telling obits are rapidly vanishing from American newspapers as death notices become part of the profit plan rather than mini-features. These four ace obituary writers show us what we have lost.

“Johnson’s lively survey is like a late-night conversation over drinks with a friend who never runs out of good stories. ‘Life on the Death Beat’ provides useful lessons for any reporter who needs to ask a family about the recently departed. ‘Obit,by a great writer who more recently won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Final Salute,’ is a collection of Sheeler’s touching, revealing obits of plain folks – wonderful stuff.”

Thanks, Garrett. The reason obits sometimes become great literature is because they are necessarily human stories. The good ones reverberate with a kind of reverance, they tell us something we didn’t know and they remind us of the inevitable – that our own obit will one day be written.

Incidentally, I’ve written about obits before in The Kicker. There was this amazing obituary that I thought worth mentioning. And Montrose Publisher Steve Woody has written about obits here.



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