Copyright 2002 The Conde Nast Publications, Inc.
The New Yorker
July 8, 2002
SECTION: U.S. JOURNAL; Pg. 28
LENGTH: 4040 words
HEADLINE: THE DEATH BEAT;
What happens when a bunch of obituary writers get together.
BYLINE: MARK SINGER
LAS VEGAS, NEW MEXICO
Carolyn Gilbert has no trouble remembering where she was when she came up with what, in all modesty, she still regards as an excellent idea-the First Great Obituary Writers' Conference. She was in North Dallas, in a bar "a lot like Cheers," with a bunch of like-minded friends, among them a federal judge, a couple of attorneys, and some other professionals, who made a point of getting together once or twice a month. "Sort of like a salon for news junkies" is Gilbert's description of the gatherings of her coterie, which seems somewhat misleading, given that the group spent far less time chewing over the front-page fodder served up by the Dallas Morning News than they did indulging their collective fascination with who had died recently and what had been written about them. Gilbert isn't an obituary writer herself (unless you count the one she wrote and sent to five Texas newspapers last winter, after her father, R. C. Milford, Jr., died). She could be most accurately described as an obituary gadfly, a self-selected advocate for obituary writers and readers. Every day, after digesting the obits in the Morning News-clipping and filing the ones she might want to refer to later on-she proceeds to read the obituary pages of the Times, the Washington Post, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, the Archer County (Texas) News, and the Electra (Texas) Star-News. Most American newspapers treat obituaries more as a revenue source than as a literary opportunity. The obits in the Morning News, for instance, usually take up two pages, but a page and a half of that is occupied by paid obituaries, a gray expanse of pallid prose that, for the most part, sounds as if it had been written by a platoon of undertakers, which it generally is. Gilbert finds this shameful, but she is, by nature, an optimist, and her optimism extends to the future of the obituary, which she believes should be elevated to its proper place as an art form. That belief inspired her spontaneously expressed intention to convene the First Great Obituary Writers' Conference.
"I just said it as a lark," she told me not long ago, when I called to inquire about the upcoming Fourth Great Obituary Writers' Conference. "I'm not even sure what I meant-whether I meant great obituaries, great writers, or great conference." The first one, which took place on a May weekend in 1999, in Archer City (the north-central-Texas destination made famous by the film version of Larry McMurtry's novel "The Last Picture Show"), was a strictly Texas event, to which only obituary writers and editors from the state's major dailies were invited. The Honorable Jerry Buchmeyer, Gilbert's federal-judge friend, gave a speech, sharing selections from his vast collection of obituaries. He also recited excerpts from a compendium of euphemisms for "died": "was ushered to the angels," "passed from this plane to a higher plane," "made his transition," "passed into life's next adventure," "received his final marching orders," "departed this life on his Harley-Davidson," "graduated to phase two of God's eternal plan," "became a handmaiden of God," "was royally escorted into her heavenly home," "teed up for Golf in the Kingdom," and-my favorite-"went fishing with Christ!! on Friday."
Gilbert's Second Great Obituary Writers' Conference, held in the town of Jefferson, was the occasion for a disquisition on a collection she had begun of paid obituaries of people who had been photographed wearing hats. "I'd noticed that, for some reason, there'd been a rash of all these folks wearing caps from Jim's Truck Stop and the like," she told me. That year's conference generated enough publicity that she began thinking of expanding beyond Texas. She gave her cottage organization a big-sounding name (International Association of Obituarists), and began collecting dues to help support a Web site (www.obitpage.com), a source of memorable obits, reviews of books with obituary-related themes, and practical advice on how to spice up one's death stories. She also founded the Obituarium, which is a word that she and a colleague coined without quite deciding how to define it. "It's conceptual at this point," she said. "It's the name of the concept of everything that gets associated with obituaries-historical, literary, genealogical." (For the moment, the Obituarium doesn't exist, except as a letterhead and a T-shirt.) Meanwhile, friends of Gilbert's had bought and restored a historic hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, north of Santa Fe, and she calculated that if the next conference were held there more out-of-staters would show up. That proved true in 2001, so she decided to return for this year's event.
"We're a small but elite group," Gilbert explained when I told her I was thinking of attending. "We really study the art and science of the obituary. The purpose is serious, but we have great fun. This year, we have the added attraction of Nigel Starck, who, even as we speak, is on a round-the-world trip to gather more information about the global obituary." Barring unforeseen circumstances, I promised, I'd be there.
Anyone who paid the hundred-and-thirty-five-dollar conference registration fee, Gilbert decided, would automatically become a member of the International Association of Obituarists. Though I wouldn't be laying out any cash myself, I imagined how I might qualify for membership under some vague grandfather clause. Not only do I turn first to the obituaries in the Times each morning; my sense is that I've been reading obits for approximately as long as I've been reading. I vividly recall being seven or eight years old and encountering in my home-town dailies, the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune, terse accounts of men in their early forties who had "succumbed" to heart attacks.
In the middle of midlife, I read the Times obits for pleasure, a pleasure that arises from the contemplation of a completed cycle of accomplishment or notoriety, concisely wrought. An almost conspiratorial escapism animates this daily exercise-my own guilty escape from having to think about, say, trade policy toward China or more bad news on the global-warming front, coupled with an envy of the freshly deceased, who has become immune to tomorrow's probably even worse news. I also make a point of reading the agate-type paid memorial tributes in the Times. My preference is for souls I've never heard of. Good for you, I think, whoever you were, whose loved ones loved you so well . . . and special congratulations for dying in the autumn (especially the autumn), amid the drifting leaves (drifting lives?) that will soon mingle with the drifting snow, in deepening, soothing silence.
It long ago occurred to me that my obituary habit derived from the same instinctive curiosity, the same blithe inquisitiveness-O.K., nosiness-that made me a reporter. When I read the obits as a young boy, however, it was with a palpable dread. The death I feared most was my father's, and when he turned forty (I was nine at the time) my worrying intensified. But then, obligingly, he didn't die. Year after year, as I got older he got younger. I kept reading the obits, absorbing subliminal clues about how to live life, while my father and mother both kept offering their own examples. They kept not dying, and at some point I realized that my anxiety about losing them had transmuted into gratitude that they had stuck around for so long.
A week before the Fourth Great Obituary Writers' Conference was scheduled to get under way, I flew to Oklahoma for a family gathering. My father had, at last, made his transition, slipped the surly bonds of earth, joined the legions of Oklahoma Sooners football fans in the ultimate luxury skyboxes. Died. Always a charitable person, he had, with characteristic munificence, outlived by more than forty years my primal childhood fear. We gave him a sendoff with far more laughs than tears, spent several days plundering his admirable wine collection, and pronounced ourselves lucky.
Which is why I was in a reflective but not especially sombre state of mind when I arrived at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, where checking in ahead of me was Carolyn Gilbert. Though she's now a freelance public-policy and communications specialist, Gilbert spent many years as a high-school English teacher, and I wasn't surprised to find that she resembled a composite of my high-school English teachers-a neatly groomed sixty-one-year-old woman with big eyeglasses, wavy auburn hair, a pearly North Texas drawl, and a howdy-do affability.
The conference wasn't officially set to begin until the next afternoon, but I got more than a preview during dinner with Gilbert that evening and a post-breakfast conversation with her the next morning. On both occasions, we were joined by Carolyn's daughter and aide-de-camp, Ashlee Gilbert, an aspiring actress and fellow obituary devotee, and by the globe-trotting Nigel Starck, an Australian journalist turned university professor, who was immersed in research for a doctoral dissertation on Australian, British, and American obituaries since the late eighteenth century. Starck's enthusiasm for his subject was such that he couldn't resist scooping his keynote address, which he'd titled "Revival of a Dying Art."
He was particularly eager to share some recently acquired artifacts-photocopies of two October, 1892, articles from the Atlanta Constitution, one a deathbed scene starring Caroline Harrison, the wife of the twenty-third President, Benjamin Harrison, and the other a postmortem dispatch that, strictly speaking, wasn't an obituary. " 'Mrs. Harrison's body was laid out in the room in which she died, and this afternoon it was placed in a casket, in which it will finally repose,' " Starck read. "Now, here's the part I like: 'She shows in her emaciation the effects of the long wasting illness of eight months that has reduced her large, matronly figure to a thin, frail form.' "
"That's what I want in my obituary," Carolyn Gilbert said.
"There was a flowering of ornate bereavement in the eighteen-eighties-a Victorian phenomenon," Starck explained. "In the latter part of the nineteenth century, they were extremely graphic and intrusive in their death journalism. They would describe suicides, brains being splattered on the ceiling." But in the nineteen-twenties the obit died-according to the most popular theory, because, after the First World War, people were sick of death. A renaissance didn't occur until the nineteen-eighties, when several British newspapers, notably the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, decided to treat obituaries like feature stories and hired talented editors to oversee them. Suddenly, the obituary pages offered leisurely narratives, lots of photographs, and a refreshing aversion to hagiography-what Starck calls "the posthumous parallax, a bending of life histories toward all that is light and wholesome, away from anything that might reflect unfavorably on the dead." Hugh Massingberd, a former editor of the obituaries page of the Daily Telegraph, recalled the unwieldy challenges posed by a refusal to capitulate to the seductions of the posthumous parallax. "One day, an injunction arrived from on high that we were to make a point of including the cause of death," he reminisced in The Spectator last year. "As it happened, a candidate for the morgue of the morrow, a priapic jazzer, had handed in his dinner pail after a penile implant had unfortunately exploded. We duly complied with the editorial diktat." So popular are the Daily Telegraph's obituaries that in 1995 the paper began publishing obituary anthologies, and many have been best-sellers.
At too many American newspapers, writing obituaries is considered a second-class calling, the pasture where reporters whose legs have given out are sent to graze before being consigned to even more distant pastures. As it happened, the journalists who attended the conference-from the Denver Post, the Arizona Republic, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Point Reyes (California) Light, and the Valencia County (New Mexico) News Bulletin-were all natural storytellers who, for various reasons, had volunteered for the obits desk. (The non-journalists included a married couple who worked for competing Dallas funeral homes, along with several serious amateurs who, a la Gilbert, devote major chunks of their lives to scrutinizing the obits.) With the exception of a presentation by Michael Putzel, a former journalist who is the vice-president of Web operations for the National Obituary Archive, a service that provides what amounts to an Everyperson's cyber-obits database (the dearly departed rendered accessible, in perpetuity, for $29.95), the conference business sessions didn't dwell upon the technical aspects of respectfully memorializing the dead. The main attraction, it seemed, was camaraderie-a chance to swap war stories with other scribblers who have confronted the challenge of summoning the mots justes to convey that the deceased was a megalomaniac or a colorful deadbeat or an unindicted felon.
After the opening session (an effusive, gesticulating performance by Nigel Starck), as the crowd headed toward the bar, I intercepted Susan Little, a college administrator and obituary collector from Georgia, who had brought along a scrapbook filled with some of her favorites. Little traced her fascination with obituaries to having grown up next to a cemetery in Atlanta. Opening the scrapbook, she said, "I've always been very comfortable around death issues. I've taken courses on death, grief, and dying. I started collecting these stories about seven years ago, and this was the first one I saved: William M. Yancy. He was a founding member of Justice for Janitors. It says here, 'He was a pioneer in the recycling business and very enterprising, even before it became fashionable or politically correct. He could not stay still.' There's a novel in there. It's a life that had meaning. And look at this. John Scandalakis. He joined the Greek Resistance during the Second World War, at the age of seventeen. He fought against both the Nazis and the Greek Communists. He was captured by Communists and witnessed the beheading of his father. He was going to be executed the next morning, but he escaped and joined the Resistance movement. I've never had a bad day compared to this man's life. Notice that it says he was surrounded by his family at the time of his death. What a wonderful full circle to have come."
The headline above an obit of an Atlanta numbers racketeer identified him as "Wesley Merritt, Jr., 69, Businessman," and a headline on an adjacent page in the scrapbook said, "Harry Watts, 76, Received His Wish to Die While in Church." Several of Little's keepsakes had been written by Kay Powell, the obituary editor of the Journal-Constitution, who was attending the conference for the second consecutive year. Powell's May, 2000, obituary of David Robeson Morgan, Little said, was "the one I've given to more people around the country than any other." It read:
Stored in Little's computer are obituaries that she's prepared for all her family members-husband, children, parents, siblings. "I've got these things ready," she said, "because when someone dies at two o'clock in the morning and the funeral home's calling to say that the newspaper has to have the obituary, you can't necessarily think coherently. And, yes, I have written my own obit. I left plans with our minister for my memorial service. Willie Nelson will be singing 'Precious Memories,' though probably not in person, because he's about to keel over."
Steve Miller, the editor and publisher (indeed, the entire staff) of Goodbye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries, also grew up next to a "particularly nice" cemetery, in Montclair, New Jersey, and often hung out there as a teen-ager. But his interest in the literary aesthetics of the dead probably originates in an obit routine at the Paterson News, one of several uninspiring newspaper jobs he held in his twenties (he's now forty). "The Paterson News had a form we filled out for obituaries," he told me. "And on slow news nights I'd occasionally put fake obituaries in the paper. I followed the form exactly, made them seem innocuous. But I was putting my friends' names on them and giving them unlikely hobbies-like making them Scoutmasters."
A few years later, after a couple more career missteps, Miller wound up on Wall Street (specifically, in the World Trade Center), working for a Japanese bank, and once he reestablished fiscal solvency he realized that he missed "a creative outlet." He was a regular reader of biographies and, he knew, a skillful writer. The result was Goodbye!, an eight-to-sixteen-page all-obituaries illustrated newsletter. "What I've done from the start is cull the best dead people I could find," he said. "Then I do my own research and make the obits more interesting than the standard fare. My ideal obit is somebody you've barely heard of. In the last issue, I did Grover Krantz, the authority on Bigfoot. Everybody knows about Bigfoot, but how many people know about Grover Krantz? So I read his books, researched his career, and developed a point of view about his life that doesn't necessarily adhere to the traditional life trajectory." The result is a droll essay about an obsessed anthropologist laboring at the margins of respectability. "Krantz had a paranoid streak," Miller writes, and "was convinced that many of the giant footprints he documented were faked by people whose motivations he could never understand." Every failure was blamed on the careerism and timidity of his colleagues-"the closed-minded bastards want to run me out of the profession." And the essay ends with an allusion to Krantz's final, crushing rejection: "A physically imposing specimen himself, Krantz nevertheless failed in his last wish to have his body accepted for display at the Smithsonian Museum."
When Miller spoke at the Third Great Obituary Writers' Conference, his theme was the philosophy of the obituary. This year, he talked about September 11th, and how his view of writing obituaries was altered by having been in his office, on the eightieth floor of the World Trade Center's south tower, when the attacks began. Miller was halfway down the fire escape when the second plane hit.
"I've told the story of my escape so many times, in so much depth, it's made me reflect about storytelling and what you can know and what kinds of effects you can try for," he said. "It's fascinating to me how our stories are shaped by our lack of knowledge." Miller's own story of escaping with his life was fashioned in his unawareness that his life was in danger. "Not knowing that it was a major attack, and that hundreds of people were already dead, gave us a confidence and a sense of purpose, sort of like a willful agnosticism.
"Someone told me that the first couple of issues after the attack weren't as humorous as the ones before. I don't know that I'm conscious of that." Actually, the most recent issue is humorous, but its humor is of a very dark kind. And it's also unusually fragmentary. "It's just one anecdote after another, where I'm not even trying to create a narrative." The anecdotes are organized thematically. There are deaths associated with animals ("Newark, NJ-A man who collected monitor lizards, as well as a menagerie of other exotic animals, was discovered half-eaten by the monitor lizards. . . . Spared in the carnage were a bunch of two-inch long Madagascar hissing cockroaches, meant to be the monitor lizards' food"). There are deaths by mayhem ("A man who sawed down a tree in his garden accidentally killed his wife when the tree fell on her. The woman was standing in the street to warn passing cars when the tree crushed her"-the headline is "Timber!"). And there are deaths by "Darwinian Events," including this account, published under the title "What a Knockout," of a young girl's death: "A car knocked down and killed a teenage girl while the driver was distracted by a billboard advertising women's lingerie. The man's car careened onto the pavement when he took his eyes off the road to stare at a giant poster of a woman clad in a revealing bra and panties." Miller is also intrigued by people who live to be more than a hundred and ten years old. "I found out that not much is known about them," he said. "What's most typical is that most of them didn't party and they never went far from home. Clearly, the best way to grow old is never to leave your house."
Two days before the conference, the Dallas Morning News had run two different paid obituaries of the same person, along with two different photographs and the announcement of two different funerals. During a morning session on the final day, Carolyn Gilbert deconstructed the two obituaries. The deceased was Melodi Dawn Knapp, a twenty-seven-year-old emergency-room nurse. Each obit had a different list of survivors, and the two funerals were planned, on consecutive days, at different churches-one at a Baptist church, the other at a predominantly gay nondenominational church. An exegesis of the text revealed a lot of piquant information: Knapp's parents were divorced; both had remarried; her father, who evidently had difficulty accepting that his daughter was a lesbian, was affiliated with the Baptist church; her partner was a woman named Tina Merritt. It wasn't clear which funeral would feature an empty casket.
Careful readers had some familiarity with Knapp from a news story in the Star-Telegram, which identified her as the driver of a car that, on a Saturday night, had been travelling the wrong way on a Dallas freeway before hitting five other vehicles and killing three other people, including a seven-year-old boy. What neither obit mentioned, of course-and technically couldn't have, because a toxicology report wasn't yet available-was that Knapp had a blood-alcohol reading four times as high as the legal limit.
In light of these complicated facts, it's hard to say where in the Melodi Dawn Knapp story one would situate what Carolyn Gilbert calls the "defining line, an insight into the heart and soul of the life." When the defining line is missing-this is a common pitfall, she says, of paid obituaries-the result is mediocrity, a long list of survivors but not much in the way of color. She addressed this topic during the conference's concluding session, which was held in a classroom on the campus of United World College, a ten-minute drive from Las Vegas, in the town of Montezuma. (One of the school's main benefactors was Armand Hammer, the former chairman of Occidental Petroleum, whose 1990 obituary in the Times avoided the posthumous parallax by noting an improper payment to a Soviet Minister of Culture and the suit brought by his own wife after he managed to abscond with part of her art collection.)
By chance, I had with me, in the pouch of my laptop-computer case, a laminated copy of my father's obituary, with the Twenty-third Psalm printed on the other side, a bit of lagniappe from the funeral home in Tulsa. I pulled it out to see whether my brother George, who had written it, had met Gilbert's standard. This was the first time I had focussed properly on the obituary-I hadn't adjusted to the thought of Alex Singer's well-lived life being reduced to eleven column inches and encased in plastic-but now I saw that George had captured our father well. There were two defining lines: "His numerous friends knew him best for his great generosity and his terrific sense of humor," and "His nearly 60-year marriage to Marjorie was the center of his life." In what might have been an oversight, or perhaps a well-intentioned fastidiousness, my brother had omitted the untidy cause of death, emphysema. (Nor was there any reference to our father's having been a cigarette smoker for more than forty years.) The nicest touch, probably, was the photograph-Dad had a particular talent for smiling when photographed-though I regretted slightly, along with one or two other regrets, that he didn't happen to be wearing a Jim's Truck Stop cap. (c)
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