The art of the obit

raven02.jpgYesterday I had a little free time and naturally gravitated to the local small town bookstore. I noticed The Dead Beat, (or Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries) by Marilyn Johnson. It was billed as a “survey both humorous and poignant of the wonders enfolded in the pages of an ordinary newspaper” with many other accolades and so I couldn’t resist, especially with such an interesting Appendix in the back that included other obituary resources on the web. For instance, did you know there was an International Association of Obituarists? I didn’t. Or that some of the most interesting tributes in the author’s view come from, of all places, The Economist? And I think I found a new link for my sidebar, The Blog of Death which sounds completely out of wack until you visit. They even have a very touching obit on the famous racehorse Barbaro, the 3 year old winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. His owners received literally thousands of sympathy cards.

I know if you’re over a certain age reading the obit page becomes a kind of habit. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had to write an obituary you know how difficult it can be. Just saying “nevermore” is not an option. Even starting the first sentence summing up a great deal of that person’s life is not only painful but seemingly impossible. Plus you are usually doing it under duress. As “the writer” in the family I was delegated to do it for my parents. still has them for me to read for a price. I just wish I’d done a better job in hindsight.

Think about it. Having the deceased thoughtfully leave you one they’ve written for themselves happens so rarely it’s worth mentioning. What would you say about yourself? Do you fancy yourself a writer of any sort? Save your left behind friends and family some heartache. Here are the steps: write it down! Put it in an envelope with your insurance papers. Or if you’re interested in hearing how the pros would like to see a new business model for obits, and the research of one news writer in particular, here’s an article from the Poynter Institute, Let’s Breathe Some New Life Into Obituaries.

(p.s. I couldn’t resist. Here is a rendition of Christopher Walken reading the Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Raven, with many incongruous background noises (including some very strange electric guitar) off an equally strange CD. I’m a big fan of Walken. He does so many cool weird things.)



  1. When writer Bret Hart was editing a California newspaper, he proofread an obituary for a well known local lady. The final line was, “She was distinguished for charity above all the other ladies in this town.” This was misprinted in the proof copy as “chastity” instead of “charity.” So he circled it and put a large question mark by it to bring it to the typesetter’s attention. To his horror, the following day he read the obituary and it said, “She was distinguished for chastity (?) above all the other ladies in this town.”

  2. I would agree that The Economist has an excellent obituary page – always has someone of note (good, bad, famous or obscure). I gain an appreciation for the impact someone has made during their lifetime and it causes me to ask myself “How do I want to be remembered?”

    Does Legacy not give you the ability to update/revise the tribute you wrote? That seems a bit odd.

  3. Even though it would seem that since the obit I submitted to my local newspaper (and which was picked up and archived by was digitally produced it would therefore be an easy matter to revise, that is not how their system works. They deal with the same issues encountered by many librarians who work with digital media, namely, which version do I call the “final” version? And do I save all the drafts, and if so, how do I catalog them. When we can whimsically change things depending on our moods, are we ever really done? It’s really an interesting problem when it comes to digital archiving and it gets even stickier when archiving web pages because sites can change by the minute. I think what Legacy tries to do is capture a point in time when the obit was actually published in print in the local newspaper. I’m grateful for their service but disappointed I have to pay almost $3 even to look at it online and could never link to it through my blog. It would be nice if there were other alternatives.

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