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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

personalized baby blanket: Obit writers find that death becomes us

Jul. 10, 2006. 01:47 PM

Jim Sheeler is a slight, unassuming young man in pressed blue jeans who looks 23, which is 15 years younger than he really is. He is at the front of the cramped conference room because he is our star, a winner this year of a Pulitzer Prize.

It is for "The Final Salute," his story in the Rocky Mountain News about what happens after "the knock at the door" — when the square-jawed, clear-eyed Marine, straight of back and splendid in full military regalia, tells the trembling, dark-haired woman now slumped against it, one hand over her stomach to protect her unborn child, that her man is not coming home from Iraq. At least not upright.

"I'm looking for scenes of life," Sheeler tells us, eyes earnest behind his glasses. "Tidbits of lives. The dog-eared pages in a book."

So after a time, that woman — Katherine — let Sheeler hold the baby blanket she had knit, soft and green, the one her husband Jim had slept in his last night at home because he wanted his baby to know how he smelled. And that's what Sheeler wrote about.

Some of us are crying because his prose is so damn good, because Sheeler himself is so damn good — and sensitive and decent — and because he is one of us, an obit writer, who made good.

This is the Eighth Great Obituary Writers' Conference, and this is also Las Vegas, New Mexico, not Nevada, on a recent hot Saturday afternoon. We — the death writers and this baking, shrivelled, silent town — seem made for one another. Other writers have noted this, reported it, dipped it in irony, sprinkled it with a little scorn, and maybe the scribe from USA Today or one of the two film crews currently covering us, crowding us, might make something of it as well.

If they do, they're not getting it. Or us.

The slouching, skinny Scot with the shiny complexion in the huge, black cowboy hat is obit editor of The Daily Telegraph of London, the acknowledged world leader in the genre. He loves telling about the time his paper inadvertently and prematurely killed off Mrs. Tex Ritter. The paper was told by the nursing home that she had moved on, and she had — to another floor.

"She was very good about it, really," Andrew McKie said, as deadpan as many of the unsigned obits published in his paper.

The attractive, dimpled woman who brought her mother along is the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obits, a cockeyed, lilting and lovely book that's eliciting raves (two in The New York Times alone) and selling madly (30,000 copies so far).

"I love the obits conference. My ambition, in 30 or 40 or 50 years, is to go as a ghost," Marilyn Johnson has said. A former editor at Esquire, she once wrote celebrity obits for People and Life magazines. She thinks obit pages are better than sports pages because obit fans don't foam at the mouth as much as sports fans.

And there are obit fans here: Alexis Chubrich is young and hip and hyperventilating.

"I have found what I want to do," she says. "I love this. I want to get home to Tempe (Arizona) right now and get on to the computer."

The tall, blond Brit who sounds just a little bit like Bertie Wooster is a Mensa member and respected stringer for The Times of London, a talented writer who penned obits for all the victims of last summer's London bus bombings.

Tim Bullamore is also about to sign on for a program leading to a PhD degree to do with obituaries at the university in Bath.

Conference regular Alana Baranick of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, won a special citation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors last year for "A Life Story," her obituaries on so-called ordinary people or, as she put it, "people I wish I had known."

And conference first-timer Betty Abah is a Nigerian journalist who wants to use obituaries "as a tool for accountability" in her country. When she says this, there is an intake of breath.

We are accustomed to our own world of obituaries, the ones heralding those with a zest for life, who put up a brave fight against a disease, lived for their families, never met a stranger, left the world a better place, and we are even getting used to the obit-writing blogs and website pages such as, the Blog of Death, Find a Grave, Last Writes.

We know, too, that readers love our obituaries. They phone us; they write us; they tell us they buy the paper because of us.

The first anthology of obituaries published by The Daily Telegraph several years ago shot to the top of the bestseller list. Its latest (and 17th) is Chin Up Girls!, a collection of women's obituaries.

Hoping to capitalize on all this is a slick magazine called Obit, coming next year. Editor Krishna Andavolu is under 30, enthusiastic and nonplussed when Joan Harvey from The Oregonian circulates a list of actual quotes from obits submitted by family and funeral homes: "Cause of death: retired to Rockway"; "He was an adamant fisherman"; "Hobbies: Music, Collecting hate, Football."

Then there's Steve Miller, the obit writer from The New York Sun, who escaped from his office at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and decided to quit his job working in IT for a Japanese bank to do what he has always wanted: this.

Two years ago, he and Amelia Rosner, a New York ad copywriter who runs an online list called alt.obits and keeps tabs on its dead pool, came tearing into the conference during its last session hollering, "Stop the presses." ("I had always wanted to say that," Miller later fessed up.)

Ronald Reagan had just died, and the conference room emptied in a shot as, journalistic pulses racing, everyone tried to phone the office. Later, several of them wrote about being at an obit writers' conference when news came of the dead ex-president. Even later, Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post was spotted strolling back from the town drugstore, dipping into a commemorative bag of jellybeans he'd just bought in Reagan's memory.

This year, there were no dead presidents, but something else was brewing. Always lively, this time the conference was positively giddy. There was talk among the 50 in attendance of meeting in Toronto next year — no more small-town dust bowls.

There was more talk of professional-action committees, establishing awards, and of a new study from the Northwestern University Readership Institute showing that obits grow newspaper readership.

It was clear that obit writers were feeling that their time had come.

Carolyn Gilbert is our doyenne. She started the conference, as well as the International Association of Obituarists, in 1999. Its website ( followed a couple of years later when she began collecting membership fees.

She tells the story in her long Texan drawl at the beginning of every conference, how she was having drinks and talking about obits with some friends back in '98 in a North Dallas bar, how "the idea was hatched in a cool, dark place."

Betcha can't organize a conference for that, one friend taunted. Betcha I cay-an, she countered.

Gilbert is a former teacher, policy adviser, workshop leader and trainer who reads the obit sections in seven daily newspapers and believes they are the highest form of newspaper writing, requiring a newspaper's top talent. She is very popular here.