The Tardy Times

Detail of "500 Anos de Resistencia" by El Salvador muralist Isaias Mata at the rectory of St. Peter's Church, 24th and Florida in San Francisco Mission District.


  300 years of sendoffs: From eulogies
   to résumés to profiles to eulogies
By Lynn Ludlow                                                                    August 2008

'He died hopefully'
THE FIRST BRITISH newspaper obituary appeared in 1622 in “The True Relation of Our Weekly News,” or so we are told by Australian scholar Nigel Starck. Seventy-six years elapsed before formal obituaries came to the Colonies. The Boston Newsletter was first with obits like that of Capt. Peregrine White, a Mayflower baby who reached the age of 83 in 1704. He was memorialized as “vigorous and of a comly aspect.” The Newsletter added, “Altho' he was in the former part of Life extravagant; yet much Reform'd in his last years; and died hopefully.”
    Throughout the 19th century, obits came in the form of eulogies from family, friends or writers on the newspaper staff. They didn't hold back. A church architect got this sendoff on Oct. 30, 1869, in the Monitor, newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.
    . . . In private life his character was peculiarly engaging. Unassuming in his manners, generous to a fault, gentle and considerate in his dealings with others, the soul of honor, and a warm and constant friend, it is rare indeed that we meet with a disposition possessing so much to attract and so little to repel the love of those around its possessor, as did that of Thomas England. The lingering disease which for upwards of two years slowly sapped his life away, he bore with cheerful resignation and when the dread summons of death arrived, his gentle spirit, fortified by the life-giving Sacraments of Holy Church, passed calmly away to another and, we trust, a better world.
      In the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 9, 1880, editorial commentary embellished a report of the death of Joshua Norton. The headline: “La Roi Est Mort.”
    Last night at 8:15, Joshua Norton, universally known, and known almost only as Emperor Norton, died suddenly in this city. The similar death of the first citizen of San Francisco, or the highest municipal officer of the city, would not have caused so general a sensation as that of the harmless old man whose monomania never distorted at least a heart which was wholesome, and hardly affected a mind which had once been of the shrewdest, other than in the method of his sovereignty of the United States and Protectorate of Mexico.
     On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain, and surrounded by a hastily gathered crowd of wondering strangers, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protectorate of Mexico . . .

     The sendoff for little Raymond Araya, a 5-year-old who lived in a camp for earthquake refugees, begged readers to shed tears. More than nine months after the 1906 catastrophe that killed upwards of 3,000 people in San Francisco, an anonymous newspaper writer reported on Dec. 14, 1906:
    . . . He was sick but about two weeks and taken December 1st to the hospital, where he rapidly grew worse, losing consciousness on the 4th, and never recovered. Those who read these lines and have lost dear ones know how hard it is to watch the fleeting breath growing fainter until the last breath is drawn, and loving hands close the eyes and fold the little hands. But think what it must be to the poor parents, refugees now living in a camp, trying to bear with patience the weary waiting for news from the sick one. Midnight draws near; all is still at camp. But hark! There is a knock at the door. What is it? "Is this where Raymond Araya's folks live?" asked the policeman standing there. "Yes." "He is dying," is the sad message he comes to bring.

Obit objectivity
MY FIRST CITY EDITOR was Bryce Anderson. A suspender-snapping taskmaster with no time for foolishness, he didn't deviate from the just-the-facts format for news obituaries of ordinary people.
    But it wasn’t always the format.
    Janice Hume, a historian of death stories, writes that newspaper obits in the 19th century tended to emphasize personal qualities – honesty, piety, courage – instead of achievements and status. She documented her  findings by collecting more than 8,000 sendoffs for her book, “Obituaries in American Culture.”
    By the middle of the 20th century, however, subjective opinions were taboo.
    The change illustrates an unforeseen consequence of the uniquely American attempt to adopt a code of “objectivity” in the news. Touted as a reform aimed at the Hearsts and other dishonest media tycoons (all of them), it solved the biggest headache of the Associated Press. The wire service, a cooperative owned by the big newspapers, was obliged to serve many publishers with differing editorial viewpoints. Whatever one thinks of the “cult of objectivity,” the facts-only policy drained color and personality from routine obituaries well before the 1950s.
     In  1957, I was a part-time sports reporter hired as a cityside summer replacement at the Marin Independent-Journal, then bedecked with a San Rafael nameplate. (I took a 50 percent pay cut from my previous job, digging ditches as a union laborer.)
    Andy was the city editor. (Only the flacks called him "Mr. Anderson," and nobody ever called him "Bryce.") The arts and craft of obit writing aren’t taught in journalism classes. He patiently introduced me to his rules for run-of-the-mill obits. The facts were usually supplied by the funeral home and supplemented, in most cases, with a phone call to the family.
   With some regional variations, Andy's format is still followed throughout the United States and Canada. He said the story should start with the most important factoids in the lede – name, age, job, date of death, cause of death.
    Let's take the obit for John Smith, a hypothetical undertaking.
    John B. Smith, 70, who was employed for 35 years at the Gardens of Peace Memorial Park, died Tuesday at a Novato convalescent home after a lingering illness.
      Cause of death: If the family assents, OK. Otherwise, “short illness” or “long illness” or “unexpectantly.”
      A résumé in prose: Brief descriptions of the dead person's education, career and/or interesting activities, if any. Awards, honors. Memberships in clubs, religious groups, unions, fraternal organizations, etc. Military service. Hobbies.
     Titles: The newly dead are entitled to honorifics denied them while alive. "Mr." and "Mrs." may have vanished from the rest of the newspaper after the full name is mentioned, but not in their obituaries. (In the Deep South, many newspapers in the racist past would identify whites with "Mr." or "Miss"  – and everybody knew that someone without a title was African-American.)    
Spouse, names/locations of children; names/locations of siblings; grandchildren and great-grandchildren by the number but not by name. (Midwestern and New England papers usually add place and date of birth together with names of parents. Southern papers nearly always say “native of Tallahassee,” or wherever.) In many obits, “preceded in death” introduces relatives who have gone on before – but only spouses, siblings and children.
    Time and place: Funeral services, memorial rites, visitation, the Rosary, “celebration of life,” etc. Sometimes, the name of the pastor, priest or rabbi. Interment (all too frequently, “internment”). (In Hawai'i, “aloha/casual attire” is routinely suggested.)
    Taboos: “Don't say ‘no flowers, please,’ ” Andy  said. “ ‘Too negative,’ the florists say. Instead, ‘The family prefers memorials in the form of donations to (insert name of charity).’ ”
     Plugola: More often than not, the story would include a mention of  the funeral home that placed the paid notice, answered the reporter's questions – and often charged the family for “media service.”
     Average length: 8 inches of body type.
     What was missing from the format: 
     Revealing details:  For example, “employed by” with no job description is often a way of saying John B. Smith was, excuse the expression, a working stiff.   “Lingering” (or “lengthy illness”) is often a code word for cancer.  No “companions,” unless pets are involved. No quotes around “convalescent home,” a place where few inmates manage to convalesce. On some newspapers, “found dead” is code for suicide. 
     Humor: Did John Smith (see above) dig his own grave? We'll never know.  No wordplay, no chuckles, ever.  
     It was up to Andy to explain to a neophyte that the obits routinely deleted mentions of divorced or dead spouses, leaving the readers to sort through a confusion of children's surnames.
     Any more questions?
     How about a history of the dead person's drunken driving, perhaps, or embezzlement from the PTA?
     Not in Andy's paper. In obits, “objectivity” didn't apply to negative information about local folks.
     Andy must have admired Ring Lardner.
    “Write it,” he explained.
A grave rivalry
OBITS were taken seriously in days of daily newspaper competition, an era fast fading in memory. In 1959, I found myself ducking journalistic bullets in a readership battlefield in downstate Illinois. With almost identical circulation figures, the two afternoon dailies in Champaign-Urbana fought for every subscriber with giveaway subscriptions . . . lottery-style puzzles with lucrative payoffs . . . an addiction to names-make-news . . . an ungentlemanly rivalry for scoops, no matter how trivial . . . and the latest news of the recently dead.
    On my first day at the Courier, city editor Tom Bender asked me to type out a country stringer's handwritten report. Her story began, “The Owl Creek Rebekah Lodge has installed new officers. They are . . .”
    My Underwood pecked as far as the name for the Right Supporter for the Noble Grand. Then my old desk trembled. The Underwood jumped. My neighbor, Bill Judy, the fiery 5-foot editor for news in outlying towns, had been interrogating an unhelpful mortician. He slammed down his phone. It broke the Bakelite earpiece, which was unbreakable.
   The news editor, Stan Slusher, looked across the desk. Calmly. Bill’s eruptions, I later found out, were not uncommon. They still talked about the time he jumped up and down in a wastebasket.
   “Obit frustration,” said Stan.
   It may have been a joke.
   As a new earpiece was found for Bill, the city editor politely asked me to wrap up the Owl Creek grand initiation report. He wanted an obit about a farmer who raised field corn and soybeans outside Flatville, a nearby hamlet with an apt name. The resulting story followed the Courier’s routine format with information from the funeral home and the widow.
    Walking into the newsroom the next morning, I got a pat on the back from the shy, slender, brilliant, intensely competitive editor himself, Robert W. Sink Jr., who wore black suits and looked like an undertaker.
    “Good job on the obit,” said my new boss.
    “You got the paternal grandparents,” he said, “and the News-Gazette didn't.”
    It was not a joke.

Everyone has a story
THE IMPORTANCE of every obit was underlined in 1961 at the San Jose Mercury, my next stop after Champaign-Urbana. City editor Ben Hitt wanted each paid death notice accompanied by a staff-written news obit in the dry language that had become standing operating procedure.
    Hitt murmured, as usual, when he asked me to find something, anything, in a news obit for the late Bernie Wishart. A 73-year-old retired laundry worker, he tested the assumption that everyone has a story to tell – if you can only find it. He lived by himself. He had no relatives.
     The funeral home attendant provided the phone number for a friend of the late Mr. Wishart. He said they had grown up together. Bernie, he said, was friendly but dim-witted.
    “Did your friend ever do anything noteworthy?”
    “I can't think of anything. “ (Pause.) “Well, when we were in school we used to throw rocks at a fat kid who later became famous in the movies.”
    In the next morning's Mercury:
    A heart attack Tuesday took the life of retired laundry worker Bertrand D. Wishart, 73, who once hurled rocks at a fellow San Jose schoolboy named Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle . . .”

Hold for release
CHANGE comes to the newspapers as slowly and unavoidably as global warming. In 1963, I arrived at the San Francisco Examiner as a general assignment reporter. On the swing shift, as I whomped up obit assignments on many an otherwise newsless evening, I could always listen to the retorts of the splenetic night city editor, Fred Kirstowsky. (He once told a complaining caller, “If you can't cease your abusive language, madam, we'll be forced to cancel your subscription.”)
     By the late 1970s, editors of the Examiner, like other papers, began to realize that obits of well-known people would improve greatly if reporters could do their research, collect a few eulogies and write their stories in advance. Held in a filing cabinet and marked “hold for release,” the drafts were ready to be updated whenever the subjects' mortal coils were shuffled off.
      Bill Flynn, once a star political reporter at Newsweek and then the Examiner, was put to work full time on advance obits. He thought it was a demotion, and it was. (Increasingly crotchety, he failed to leave an advance obit for himself.)
    Editor and Publisher's Joe Strupp (formerly of the Independent in San Francisco) reported last year that the New York Times, with a crew of six editors and writers, has stockpiled more than 1,200 biographies of the undead. The Times files still contain hundreds of “obituary interviews” collected in the 1960s and 1970s by the father of the modern obit, Alden Whitman.  He liked to tell his subjects that they would never have a chance to read what he would write about them.
    The Times now videotapes famous people. In a posthumous series called “The Last Word,” the first was humorist Art Buchwald. I couldn't find it on the NYT website, but we're told that soon after his death at 81 on Jan. 18, 2006, he greeted viewers by video: “Hi. I'm Art Buchwald, and I'm dead.”

The undead
THE  “hold for release” obit could have unexpected complications.
    On Dec. 27, 2006, when the Washington Post ran a takeout on Gerald Ford, the former president's obit was double-bylined. Neither writer was still at the newspaper.  The advance story had been put together years beforehand with the help of SF State alumnus Lou Cannon, who had retired from the Post (I knew him when he worked on the copydesk more than 40 years ago at the San Jose Mercury, but that was before the onetime lefty became Ronald Reagan’s admiring biographer.) The other writer was J.Y. (for Joseph Yeardley) Smith, a Post advance-obit specialist whose own sendoff had appeared 11 months earlier. His dying words, according to his colleague Adam Bernstein: “Don’t let them screw with my Castro obit.”
    A related problem is illustrated by the advance draft written for Paul Jacobs, the socialist writer, labor journalist and investigative reporter during the “Newsroom” era at KQED-TV. Paul was a familiar sight at demonstrations. He was easy to spot. The author of “Is Curly Jewish?” (a “political self-portrait”) had a scalp about as curly as a newell post. One of the left's rare humorists, Paul would regale the press with jokes and stories while we waited for a news conference or the start of a protest march.
   By 1977, Paul stopped attending news events. He looked like hell. For years he had investigated cancer deaths among soldiers exposed to fallout at nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. Now he was dying of cancer, which he blamed on radioactive poisoning incurred during his research. The Examiner city desk, now free of the former publisher's horror of anything to the left of J. Edgar Hoover, ordered up a respectful advance obit. It mentioned Paul's books on old age, the New Left, the riots of the 1960s and a “dialogue on poverty.”
    Jim Schermerhorn, a veteran Examiner reporter who filled in from time to time on the city desk, was on duty on a Saturday night in an empty newsroom. The phone rang. Paul Jacobs, he was told, had died. Jim found the advance obit and sent it to the backshop, intending later in his shift to fill in the updates – time, place and manner. Something came up. He never got around to it. The incomplete obit ran in the Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, then at more than half a million circulation.
   On Monday morning, a cadaverous man walked into the Examiner newsroom. Reporters looked up from their Selectrics.
    “Hi,” said Paul Jacobs.
   He was in good company. The most quoted (and misquoted) reaction by the not-yet-dead came from Samuel Clemens (“The report of my death is an exaggeration”). Others who expressed surprise when told they were dead include Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling, Bob Hope, Robert Graves, Marcus Garvey and Joe DiMaggio. At the Times of London they still tell the story of the aristocrat who read his obituary one morning and phoned the paper to complain. “And where, my lord,” said the editor, “are you calling from?”
    When the San Francisco AP sent a reporter to Hillsborough to check out a rumor that the Good Ship Lollypop was in mourning, Shirley Temple Black politely asked, “How did I die?”
    It was no surprise when, with a laugh, Jacobs accepted the city editor's apologies.   Someone brightly asked, “Well, what did you think of your obituary?”
   “I thought it was very nice,” he said, “except . . . ”
   “It should have been longer.”
   A few weeks later, the Examiner printed a second obituary for Paul Jacobs, 59.
    It was much longer.

MOST CITY EDITORS in the 20th century assigned the dead beat to burnouts, inebriates, newcomers or hapless reporters on what might be termed the city editor's hit list. Reporters joked about obit duty as a dead-end job. It was one full step below taking dictation from pontificating executive editor who had just parachuted into Nicaragua.
     The wretches on the obit desk would be shouldered aside, of course, for death reports on celebrities, political luminaries and anyone with a Bentley. Then the paper’s favored writers would prepare the chorus of eulogies that would send VIPs to join the choir invisible.
     Change happened gradually. By the mid-1980s, Jim Nicholson at the Philadelphia Daily News created what one writer called “the common man (and woman) feature obit . . . and brought the form to an art.” Nicholson recalls, “The only ground rule we had settled on: ‘The newsroom handles the big guys; Nicholson writes about the nobodies.’ ”
     In Nieman Reports, he explains how he worked: “It didn't take long for me to cross most of the traditional lines upon which most obit pages operated. I started writing obits like they were personal columns, with a lot of subjective slants on philosophy, religion, cabbages and kings, all meant to enhance the life, times and character of the deceased.”
    Nicholson won many awards.
    The Wall Street Journal began a weekly obit column – but called it “remembrances.”
    Other big newspapers took notice. Except the Christian Science Monitor, for obvious reasons.
    Nigel Starck, the professor of obitology, supplied academic sanction. “It is the most intense, finest form of journalism,” he told a radio panel, “because it requires precise research, aggressive interviewing and muscular, yet graceful delivery.”
    “Obituaries aren't eulogies,” says Catherine Dunphy of the Toronto Star. “They're about storytelling. There's a narrative arc to them, and that's journalism.”
    The shift from fill-in-the-blanks formats to literary respectability didn't happen overnight. But obit addicts came to treasure offbeat profiles by the New York Times’ full-time obituarist, Robert McG. Thomas. New appreciation greeted the on-deadline work of general assignment reporters like the Examiner's Edvins Beitiks, the Examiner/Chronicle's Larry D. Hatfield or the Chronicle's Steve Rubenstein, Pat Yollin and Michael Taylor.
     Marianne Costantinou exemplified the new wave. Like the rest of the Examiner staff, she came over to the Chronicle in 2000. Marianne soon migrated to cityside, where she was dying to take over as chief obit writer. Having once been a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News, she followed Nicholson's path.
     “I would look through the classified ads, the deaths column, to find one that had some little tidbit that caught your fancy and made you smile, like the lady who watered plants in San Francisco office towers,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “I would try to make them as personable as possible, because this was their last hurrah – and very often their first.”
     She usually buried, in a phrase from newswriting, the lede. On May 9, 2006, in an obit on Pem Farnsworth, widow and assistant of television inventor Phil Farnsworth, she began with a scene in 1929 in North Beach: “The image was blurry and tiny, her eyes were closed, but there she was: the first woman on television . . .”
    Last year she took the buyout, another loss to a newspaper with diminished expectations.

They died too soon
BRYCE Anderson, Robert W. Sink Jr. and Ben Hitt, the editors of my youth, had promulgated the very rules of detachment that in time would turn their own life stories into obits that were dignified, dutiful and as dull – as the Brits say– as ditchwater.
     Today's liberated obit writers could have delved into Andy’s lonely boyhood on an isolated ranch in Utah. As a member of the now-forgotten Lone Scouts of America, Andy published his first newspaper (crudely printed on gelatin in a baking pan) to be mailed to other Lone Scouts on other remote ranches.
     Bob Sink’s write-up  would certainly have quoted his reporter William C. Groninger Jr., who said shaking the editor's hand was like grabbing a handful of copy pencils.
    Ben would have gone to his reward with a sendoff that undercut the 1920s image of a screaming, tough-talking, cigar-chewing city editor. A bookish little man, he was so shy that he would type out an assignment and shove it without a word, or a glance, to a reporter sitting three feet away.
    But the “the golden age of the obit writer,” so they say, was about to begin.

The Obit Hall of Fame
LIKE “MEMBERS of an outlaw cult,” we are told by Alana Baranick of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “obituary writers have been gathering annually in quiet, out-of-the-way places for the last seven years to discuss their craft.”
    The gatherings began in 1999 in Archer, a central Texas town otherwise noted as the backdrop for the movie version of Larry McMurtry's novel, “The Last Picture Show.” Carolyn Gilbert's work with the Dallas Legal Hospice led the former English teacher to create the world's most improbable press organization. As what she calls “a lark,” she founded what later became the International Association of Obituarists. This summer she traveled to Las Vegas, N.M. (not Nevada), as the host for the Ninth Great Obituary Writers' National Conference.
    She is creator of the association's Hall of Fame, organizer of an obit workshop in San Miguel de Allende and editor of, which includes an eight-page form for do-it-yourself obit information. She frequently appears as the obit expert at conferences and panel discussions.
     “People think the obituary (appears) by magic,” she says. “You die, the obituary pops up in the newspaper the next day. They don't have a clue how it happens unless they've had a number of deaths in their family and have gone through the procedure."
      Lincoln Kirsten, who couldn't pirouette and didn't try, founded and funded the New York City Ballet. Baroness von Waldstätten supported Mozart for a time but didn't attempt to compose “Don Giovanni.” And Carolyn Gilbert, although a tireless advocate of writers who toil in the vineyards of death, has never actually written a news obit.

HERE is a sampling of memorable obit writing.

It had always been her dream to get a black stallion, and she finally got one in 1987, at the end of her breeding career: a black colt, a 16-hand true-black Egyptian breed Arabian named Nite Magic. Her bed was by the window, so she could see Nite Magic in his pen, and he stood at the fence and stared at her. But she couldn't ride him.
    – Amy Martinez Starke
               The Oregonian

“John Doe” was killed at the Pastime.
Good riddance.
               The Calico (Calif.) Print (1884)

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.
             – Douglas Martin
              New York Times

If there was a quality separating Kurt Vonnegut Jr. from the other World War II vets who turned their talents to the novel, it was a tongue-in-cheekness, a continually raised eyebrow, an inability to believe that all this crazy stuff was really happening.
             – Edvins Beitiks
                San Francisco Examiner.
 (From an advance obit, never published, written  before the paper was sold off; Ed soon died himself  from the effects of wounds and Agent Orange in his Vietnam service.)

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.
               – Andrew McKie
               The Daily Telegraph, London

Burkhart's life makes it hard to maintain that freakdom is deleterious to health or normal sociality. The man was married for 52 years and remained close to his wife and three children to the end of his 94 years, still performing weeks before he died. He always maintained that pounding a nail into his head was painless.
              – Stephen Miller

Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
             –  Lord Byron
                (George Gordon)                

FOBITS (Friends of Obits) was named by Kay Powell, the obit writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She defines them as “people who love obits, collect obits, scrapbook obits, and mail me obits that I wrote 10 years ago because they thought I might like it.”
    Then came the World Wide Web. Fobits multiplied like Nebraska grasshoppers.
    It's not easy to quantify the phenomenon, but the Internet offers clues.'s alt.obituaries group provides free access to a cybernet warehouse of assorted obits and death notices posted by more than a thousand volunteers. As of  this year, the usenet site held more than 100,000 reports, including profiles of historical figures and obits from British, Irish, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand newspapers. It's not much good for research of individuals, but it's a wonderland for students of obit composition., the obit giant in cyberspace, claims 7 million visits a month. For $29 to $49 the grieving family can let the public view a “Moving Tribute” of up to 30 photographs, 500 words of text and a 60-second voice message. You can also download for a fee the obits the company collects from 350 newspapers. doesn't charge for the Social Security Death Index, which supplied place of death and dates of birth and death. Like the “Moving Tribute,” can provide serious fobits with a “Guest Book” for remembrances, eulogies and digitized epitaphs.
     We called up the “Guest Book” for the Chronicle/SF State legend Bill Chapin, who died in 2004 and left admirers with many an anecdote. (You could look up William P.G. Chapin and the story about a strip poker game in a student party at my house. By then a faculty member, he staved off nudity, and possible denial of tenure, by unscrewing his wooden leg and plopping it on the table.)

     Also on the Web (as of 2008):

    * Obituary Forum (a spinoff from Edited by Alana Baranick (“Life on the Death Beat”) with loads of articles by the chief luminaries of the obit world. “Please join in the discussion with and ask questions of folks who write about the dead for a living, and others, who study, enjoy, read and/or write obituaries.”
    * Put together by Jade Walker, now an online editor for the Associated Press. In four years, she had published more than 1,500 obits of the famous, the infamous and “interesting unknowns.”
    * Bill Cribbs in Beaumont, Texas, runs this “obituary database.”
    * “The coolest mortuary novelty shop on the Internet.”
    * And Now S/He's Dead: At The Manhattan-based Gawker site includes a collection of reprint obits heavily annotated by anonymous posts.
    * With height, weight, birth date and do-you-smoke questions, the Death Clock declares your date with the undertakers. (In my case, Thursday, January 17, 2013.)
    * SlipCue Obituaries: Copies of obits in the world's newspapers, mostly  from 1999 and 2000.
    * The Eons website (“Lovin' life on the flip side of 50”) includes the National Obituary Center, which features obits of prominent people, local obits drawn from newspapers (far from complete), historic obits about people who died that week, photo tributes and a year-by-year index of memorable persons who died in the 21st century.
    Last on the list is Virtual Memorial Garden. Taking obits to Newcastle, this British cybercemetery is populated by dead pets. It's a bit overgrown, with few memorials in recent years. Typical: “Sabrina: March 1991-August 1995. My beloved Siamese cat went to explore one day and did not return. I think of you and miss you everyday.”

Captain Kangaroo, dead?
THE FIRST MAGAZINE to stoke the fobit phenomenon was “Good Bye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries.” Steve Miller, an Oberlin grad seriously frustrated while writing formula obits at a small New Jersey paper, quit to become a computer geek. It gave him enough spare time to start his own magazine/website. Now he could write about death, he said, with “the focus on life.”
    The first issue of “Good Bye!” in 1997 featured Miller's writeups on the deaths of Eric Hebborn, Francois Mitterand and Jerry Mulligan. Featured was Red Thundercloud (a.k.a. Cromwell A.H. West, the son of an African-American druggist), who made a living by posing as “the last speaker of Catawba,” the vanished language of a tribe in South Carolina.       
    Miller almost became an obit himself when he ran down 80 flights to escape the South Tower. Ask Google for “9/11 and the Obituaries,” an essay we won't soon forget. A year later, his magazine and website entered what he called “hiatus.”  Miller quit playing with computers and took a job writing his own brand of obits for the New York Sun. Then he became the Wall Street Journal's “Remembrances” writer to send people from the world of commerce into Lord Byron's dark union of insensate dust.
    “Good Bye!” was a one-man show with few subscribers. But it set the stage for “Obit,” an online magazine with ambitions to enter the print world. It comes with an ambitious agenda.
    “Obit introduces an editorial outlet to the American consumer on a taboo subject with the aim of challenging assumptions about death and dying through life stories and innovative thinking,” says the website.  “The generation of Americans approaching their twilight years is like no other generation before in terms of wealth, mobility, and receptiveness to new modes of thinking. Obit will speak to this generation, allay fears through information, and spark discussion.”
    The new magazine/website's name, logically enough, is “Obit.” It's a slick production with real editors, regular features, outstanding examples of the obituarist craft, a long list of contributors and, it's hoped, a lot of advertisers. The website lists $24.95 for one year's subscription (six issues), but it's hard to see why anyone wait for two months for the next issue when the free online edition is updated daily. The Nov. 7 page led with critic John Leonard, and the lineup included obits on Michael Crichton, Studs Terkel, Tony Hillerman and several others. Feature included forums, cartoons, "best sendoffs," a comment page and discussions of obit-related books. 
    The publisher is Bob Hillier, who runs a large architectural firm in Princeton, N.J. He is co-owner with his wife, Barbara, of the local paper, Town Topics. He says that he was on an airplane from Dallas in 2004 when he saw a woman in tears. She was reading an obit of Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan). One thing led to another.

'It’s a great time to die'
ARISTOTLE warned that life can't be judged until it's over. This is scant comfort to the dead. The judging is left to the living. Many of us read the mini-biographies, snapshot profiles and lists of accomplishments as a kind of a scorecard in the sport pages of life. But that doesn't explain the astonishing output of books that collect, dissect or celebrate the once-humble obituary.
  The pick of the harvest is “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (P.S.),” published by a former obituarian, Marilyn Johnson. To her, an obit is “an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died . . ."
   The obit bookshelf gets more crowded every day.
  “It's the best time ever to read obituaries,” Johnson writes, “and I'm here to tell you, it's a great time to die.”
   Here are a few book titles  – and two movies.

     “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers,” by Alana  
         Baranick, Jim Sheeler and Stephen Miller.
      “Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary,” by Nigel Starck.
      “52 Mc G's,” by Robert McG Thomas (edited by Marvin Siegel).
      “The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and
edited by Marvin Siegel.
     “The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries,” by Nick Talevski.
      “The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries,” by Hugh Massingberd.
      “The Times Book of Obituaries,” by Ian Brunskill.
       “National Obituary Archive,” at
       “Obit. Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary
           Lives.”  “Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.” 
Both by Jim
     “A Social History of Dying,” by Allan Kellehear.
     “Obituaries in American Culture,” by Janice Hume.
     “What a Way To Go,” by Adele Q. Brown.
     “Cool Dead People,” by Jane O'Boyle.
     “Fame at Last,” by John C. Ball and Jill Jones.
            Final Destination
      “Beyond the Good Death: The Anthropology of Modern Dying,” by
           James W. Green.
     “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death,” by
           Lisa Takeuchi Cullen.
     “Exit Strategy,” by Michelle Cromer.
     “Final Exits:  Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die,” by Michael  
       “The Obituary Writer,” by Porter Shreve.
       “A Few Corrections,” by Brad Leithauser.
      “At Death's Door” (thriller).
      “Obituary,”  released to tepid reviews in 2006, starring Josie  
           Bissett as a newspaper obit writer.    # 

De mortuis nil nisi bonum!
MILLIONS of news obituaries follow the Diogensian embargo on speaking ill of the dead. Even the staff-written sendoffs shy away from all but the most memorable flaws in the dead person's character. Was the sainted grandmother a gin-drinking flapper in the Roaring Twenties? Was the veteran of the Korean War also a veteran of the Fort Ord stockade?      
   Don't expect on the obit page to read about wife beaters, tax cheats, couch potatoes, home wreckers, alcoholics, neglectful parents, unscrupulous incompetents or sadistic fifth-grade teachers.
   Jim Mitchell's PR people set a new standard for sins of omission. His paid obit in the third week of July 2006 resolutely ignored any mention of his business (porn and sex) or his decision in 1991 to save his beloved brother from alcoholism (by shooting him dead).
     On the other hand, Stephen Miller's “Good Bye” website often said “ne!” (in Latin, “not!”) to De mortuis nil nisi bonum. In a sendoff in 1999 for the creator of a popular cartoon character, he wrote:
   Archie is one of the most loathsome and sappy comics of all time. The man responsible for it has disappeared from this mortal strip forever. Golly.   . . . John Goldwater was the propagandistic freakazoid behind this cultural crime, and we can only weep and moan that some beneficent being allowed him to live a full decade beyond his three-score and ten. Perhaps we need a national program of targeted virgin sacrifice. Let's start with Archie!
    No mention of Loathsome Archie Obits appears in “The Dead Beat,” Marilyn Johnson's authoritative book on the obituary renaissance. A good sendoff, she says, concentrates instead on language normally associated with literary analysis: “It has the clear-eyed perspective of an op-ed piece and the drama of the news. It doesn't pull its punches in consideration of the dead; it aims not just for factual truth . . . but for some sort of ‘higher truth’ – and it takes pleasure in its aiming."
     Johnson's admirers included author David Halberstam, who called her book “a charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries . . . sly, droll, and completely winning."
     When Halberstam himself died April 23, 2007, in a car crash near San Francisco, Johnson may have had second thoughts about the obit that “doesn't pull its punches” and “takes pleasure in aiming.” The nation's newspapers published adulatory obituaries (caught by surprise, the New York Times hadn't prepared an advance draft for its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of 40 years ago). A list of tributes fills a whole column in
     Missing from the list is a Loathsome Archie obit that popped up immediately in The online magazine's editors didn't wait a single day before they came to bury Halberstam, not to praise him. Editor-at-large Jack Shafer wrote “Portrait of the Prize-Winning Reporter as an Engorged Ego.” He described Halberstam as a pompous, arrogant windbag whose writings were sloppy, bloated and complacent. Shafer then quoted a couple of Slate reviewers. One said that the 22-book author wrote “monologues that combined the brevity of Henry James with the vivacity of a quarterly report of the Brooking Institution.” R.I.P., as it were.
The mourning paper
THE GOLDEN AGE of Obituaries somehow morphed into a golden opportunity for the newspaper's red-ink accountants. Blame television, the Internet, or corporate short-term greed. Blame the rising cost of newsprint. Blame aversion to the news of the day by the affluent knuckleheads of the self-esteem generation. Blame Craigslist, the Republican Party or the death of Herb Caen. Blame corporate hatchet men or insecure executive editors who hide in glass offices. Blame glib consultants from the ad world who preach the gospel according to clueless focus groups. Blame whomever you choose, but the nation's surviving daily newspapers will continue to consolidate, cut back on coverage, lose circulation and, in too many cases, abandon the notion that the first job of newspapers is to deliver the news.
   The front page  of the San Francisco Chronicle, like many other metro papers, is dominated these days by magazine-length stemwinders and hard-hitting three-byline reports on lost humpback whales. Sure, a lot of good stuff gets good play, but on most days you need to go inside to discover that war continues in Iraq, to sigh about the latest scandals in Washington or to check the latest hurricane reports. To get to the obits, however, look no further than the B section. Two or three pages are crammed with melancholy dirges, smiling mug shots of the newly dead and, for the devout, résumés to be presented at the Gates of Glory. 
    Sister Maureen Culleton:  . . . Sister will be remembered for her Irish wit, her decisiveness and her outspoken manner, and her dedication to her nursing ministry . . . 
    Nancy N. Hincks: . . . Affectionately named Nini, Nancy will be remembered by six grandchildren . . .
    Jack Kermoian, Capt. SFFD, Ret.:  ...Jack’s generosity was legend. From broken pipes to broken hearts, he  could repair it all...
     Tributes for Sister Maureen, Grandmother Nini and Captain Jack, plucked at random from thousands in the “In Memory”  pages of the Chronicle, typify the adjective-heavy, family-written, uncritically affectionate panegyrics that now supplement the traditional staff-written obituaries.

The grateful bean counters
THE PAID OBITS make a lot of money now that the revenues from conventional classified ads are buried in the privy. As of last year, the daily cost of each paid obit was  $86 per inch of type plus $120 for a photo, plus tax, and an additional $25 for posting in the Internet at Some funeral homes add a service fee. The bill at other metro papers is about the same. The Seattle Times charges $88.48 per inch and $140 per photo in the daily paper, $100.38 and $160 for the Sunday paper.
    In place of the former death notices in agate type, the Chronicle publishes each day 20 to 50 paid obits set in 10-point Helvetica type. The sans serif typeface is supposed to distinguish the death ads from stories in the Chronicle's custom-designed body type. This variant of Times Roman (like the body type on this page) is employed by the newspaper for staff-produced stories, not plugola for the dead.
   On a typical day last spring, the Chronicle's midweek “In Memory” section printed 34 obits with 174 column inches of text which, at $86 per inch, would have collected $14,964 in billings. Nine photos at $120 each would bring in $1,080, for a 16-grand total. For 365 days of the year at that daily rate, the Chronicle will get almost $6 million.
    Cameron Bursey: Our beloved Cambo left us gracefully on Friday morning. . . . w/photo, $894.
    Rev. Hardis C. Bakken: Hardis passed away peacefully, after a long and wonderful life . . .  w/photo $960
   Think of paid obits as advertorials. No journalist of today would report without attribution that Cambo died gracefully or that Hardis lived a wonderful life, but the families can write whatever they choose. And why the hell not?
    A paper like the Chronicle might run two or three news obituaries on an average day, but on a typical Wednesday  more than 30 paid obits encouraged us to graze for names we dread to read. We didn't find anyone we knew, but we learned that a Clancy Steinhoff was inducted into the Horseshoe Hall of Fame, that a Henrietta Sherman “was a loving, dedicated wife, mother and grandmother,” that a Ronald Venditti “truly cherished the trip he took with his family to Italy and Medjugorje in Bosnia” and that the music room in the Biblioteca Publica in San Miguel de Allende was named for Tirzah Mailkoff, age 100 (she had catalogued 20,000 pieces of sheet music for the annual chamber music festival in the Mexican city where she moved 20 years ago). 
    True, the paid eulogies don't include negative information – but neither did just-the-facts news obits ordered by Andy Anderson, Bob Sink, Ben Hitt and every editor of the nation's 1,400 dailies and 5,000 weeklies, day after day, year after year.

Getting the last word
HOW WILL you be remembered? Larken Bradley asks. Her next question: “How will your loved one be remembered?
    The answer: “Put some life into obituaries.”
    The price of her one-woman online service, Obituaries Professionally Written, is listed at $125 an hour – with the typical bill at anywhere between in $500 and $750.
    If only I had known. As a reporter for seven dailies, I must have written hundreds of obits – and never got a dime. And consider the eloquent shrug of Larry D. Hatfield, retired reporter. During more than 30 years as the go-to rewriteman at the Examiner (plus stints at UPI, the Marin Independent Journal and the Chronicle), he probably averaged about eight obits per week when not otherwise occupied with weather stories, breaking news from on-scene reporters, localizing wire reports or composing the lead local story on deadline. By a conservative estimate, he probably wrote more than 5,000 obits – most of them on newsworthy people, most of them on deadline. By the Larken pay scale, he would have been a millionaire.
    A therapist and a former social worker with a master's degree in clinical psychology, Larken Bradley didn't branch out as an entrepreneur obituarist until she put in seven years of death stories at the weekly Point Reyes Light. She was encouraged in her detailed, multi-sourced mini-biographies by the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor/publisher, Dave Mitchell, one of my former colleagues at the old Examiner. She won many writing awards, a rarity in the world of rural journalism. (See some of her greatest hits at A book of 22 “living obituaries,” entitled “Stories of West Marin,” was published in 2005.)
     Then Mitchell sold the weekly. He soon had a falling out with the new owner. With other Michellites, Larken quit the Light and signed on with a new weekly, The West Marin Citizen, an online spinoff from the Bodega Bay Navigator. It also has a printed edition. In the meantime, she flogs her obit-by-email business.
    She told the Chronicle's Sunday magazine, “I consider myself a biographer for hire.”
    It's not a crowded field. A business called “” charges a mere $15 for a machine-crafted obit. The “lovingly written” story, untouched by human hands, is based on an online questionnaire. The answers are fed into a website database. Another website, “,” offers a virtual urn, in a manner of speaking, to contain unlimited text and a guestbook. It's free. A “full featured” memorial costs $50 for text, photos, slide show and lots more.
    Many other websites tell you how to prepare obits on your own. But Larken's service allows a family (with money) to combine or choose the lyrical grief of the early obituaries, the omniscient eulogies of the 19th century, the emotional detachment of the 20th century or the ministrations of a talented, industrious and dedicated ghost writer.
   “Obituary writing is a grave undertaking,” Larken has said. “It's also wonderful fun and a great privilege to write the final stories of those who've reached the dead-end sign on life's long and winding road.”
   Until recently, most families, friends and undertakers had to settle for a “death notice” in agate type. With the advent of paid obits in 10-point type, they can change their tune. It evokes from 17th century Ireland a popular aphorism (with one vowel changed) with ugly forebodings for newspapers – and not just the obit page.
    Who pays the paper, as the saying goes, calls the tune.     #

The writer retired in 2002 from the San Francisco Chronicle after a 46-year career as reporter and editor at five daily newspapers.

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