Monday, March 23, 2009

Award Winning Obituaries

I think I probably read more obituaries than the average person my age. They're mostly the obituaries of patients I have known. For the most part they are very similar. I've always appreciated the ones that are more creative. I've never thought of them as a form of art and I never really thought about who was writing them (don't families write them sometimes?). I recently discovered the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW), an "organization created for folks who write about the dead for a living."

I must admit, my first thought was, why? Is there a society for those journalists that write for every other section of the paper? But after perusing their website, their cause became more clear. "We want those who write articles about the recently deceased to regard obituaries as once-in-a-lifetime stories that should be researched, reported and penned with as much care and attention as any other newsroom assignment." Oh my! Well put. Could obituary writers be to journalism what palliative care is to medicine? I suddenly feel very sympathetic to the plight of the obituary writers.

Every year SPOW gives out awards for the best obituaries in different categories, such as Average Joe, Celebrity and even Broadcast media. Since I discovered their website, I've devoted some time to reading some of the award winning obituaries about people I've never met. I have been trying to appreciate them more as an art form, a work of nonfiction. I was amazed by how clear a picture some of these gifted journalists could paint even though I didn't know the subject of the articles.

Below is an excerpt from Fair Thee Well, Ex-Father-In-Law by Daniel Asa Rose (from Obit) which won for the Best Tribute/Memoir/Column (Long):

"So it's easy, is it not? To pick up where you left off. There is no earthly reason to stop communicating with a man just because you divorced his daughter, no reason in the world not to keep the dialogue going ad infinitum. Except one. For this bullying bruiser who was going to live to be 100 suddenly dropped, just like that. Before I could send off my package, this unstoppable man with his burly chest and nasty brilliance was cut down, the private nurse un-caught, the hurtful snare drum of a laugh shut down at last. I had meant to pick up where we left off: Now we were just leaving off. Wesley Love died, and what was music and what was not would have to wait some later debate.

Here's to you, ex-father-in-law. I'm sorry we never recognized each other for what we were. Probably you were not the ogre I thought, just a mortal straining to suck in your gut in your canary yellow La Coste shirt. I was just a kid trying to lock horns with one of the big guys. Why didn't we know that then? Why aren't we all more gentle with each other now?"

Although it's too long to post here, I appreciated Carol Smith's article (which won for Best Average Joe Obit Short) Dying vet planned a final mission.

So to all you obituary writers out there, my proverbial hat goes off to you. You do important work and I hope you have the appreciation and respect that you deserve.

7 Responses to “Award Winning Obituaries”

Gail Rae said...
March 23, 2009 at 8:01 PM

You've tapped into my not-so-secret obsession, here! Thank you for the information. I'm surprised I didn't know about this society.
Sidebar that I hope people find interesting: A few years ago, through a friend, of heard of a technique used in psychological therapy in which the client periodically writes her or his obituary, including date, time and manner of death, a life review and anything else the client wishes the world (and themselves) to know at "the end" of their life.
I tried to get my mother, who was also fascinated with obituaries, (I may have absconded this interest from her) to do this, both as an attempt to spur some internal psychological review (for which she NEVER had a passion nor an understanding; I don't think she ever felt a need for it) and to get an idea of what she wanted me to say about her when the time came to announce her death to the world. I could never coax her to do this. Her attitude was that obituaries, while interesting, are best left to survivors.
Perusing through the obits posted at SPOW, I think she may have been right.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 23, 2009 at 8:26 PM

Gail Rae, I must admit that I've never tried to write my own obituary. It might be a good exercise. Maybe I should make my residents and students do that. I know one of my English teachers used to have students write their own epitaphs. Thanks for your comment.


LLWaldschmidt said...
March 30, 2009 at 5:02 PM

I think it might be interesting to know how many of us who work in hospice DO read the obituaries....it is the first page I turn to in the paper...
So often the obit provides us a glimpse of the person when their life was vital and engaged...
Unfortunately, we don't appreciate those things in the short time we know them...


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 30, 2009 at 6:07 PM

I would like to know how many of you out there read the obits too. Maybe its like going to funerals of patients. Some go to them regularly, some have a strict rule of never going. Maybe some people find that after a long day of taking care of the sick and dying, they just can't read about it too. I can't fault either side.


Anonymous said...
March 31, 2009 at 6:10 AM

I've always routinely read obituaries, even before I made the career change to hospice and palliative care medicine. While in the in-patient world of medicine, being a hospitalist and intensivist, it allowed be to find out what happened to some of my patients after they were discharged. Now, it allows me to follow-up on patients that were seen on the palliative care consult service and discharged to either home hospice, the in-patient hospice unit or with other services.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

I would like to know how many of you out there read the obits too. Maybe its like going to funerals of patients. Some go to them regularly, some have a strict rule of never going. Maybe some people find that after a long day of taking care of the sick and dying, they just can't read about it too. I can't fault either side.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Gail Rae, I must admit that I've never tried to write my own obituary. It might be a good exercise. Maybe I should make my residents and students do that. I know one of my English teachers used to have students write their own epitaphs. Thanks for your comment.