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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Images and Death Notices for Emilia's Study

Emilia's Images from top to bottom: 1,8, 6, 10, 2.
Death Notices follow images.

" Hello from Bulgaria"

       " Hello from Bulgaria "

That's what it said on the subject line one morning in 2002.  My heart always jumps when an unexpected intriguing email appears.  Bulgaria?  Couldn't be.  Our International Association of obituarists had found its way to a number of countries around the world by this time but....Bulgaria?

In the email that followed was a plea for assistance.  The writer was a student (yes, in Bulgaria) who was trying to achieve a graduate degree in the study of the obituary or necrolog as it is called there. Requests of this type are music to my ears, of course.  It is at these times I realize I am a cross between a teacher, a missionary and a real softy for anyone who needs my help.

Emilia touched all the bases with me.  She was a struggling student...studying the genre I love...and doing it virtually alone.  There was no professor to oversee her graduate study ...much less her study of the art of the obituary.  She was trying to cast her net across the internet for help.

It took only moments for me to reply to this young mystery woman in Bulgaria and to give her a contact in academia who was made to order for her studies.  Dr. Nigel Starck at the University of South Australia was involved in research for a book in the making dealing with comparisons of obituary customs among various cultures.  What a perfect match.  Dr. Starck was kind enough to respond to Emilia and to guide her to some sources for her study.  A matchmaker couldn't have done better!

Over the months of 2002 and early 2003 I kept in touch with Emilia in the hope of sharing her study with our Great Obituary Writers' Conference in the summer of 2003.  It would have been a miracle if Emilia had been able to join us in person for the Conference.  But that was not to be.  However, she graciously prepared a presentation for us to share in her absence.

Not only did she share her academic paper, she sent photographs to enhance our understanding of the necrolog customs in Bulgaria.  The paper and these priceless photos are presented here from our archives as a gift from Emilia.

You will see that the paper is not in perfect English.  Emilia was not in perfect English, either.  However, I felt it was important to leave the paper as written.  She had help from a friend with the translation and under the conditions, I find it very appealing.

My last contact with Emilia was prior to the Conference in July 2003.  She let me know that she was very pleased we would be able to distribute her study to our conferees...and that she and her husband were moving.  She did not have a new email address to give me at that time.  And to this day, I have not ever been able to reach her after her move.  I, too, have moved and changed emails as well.  I am hoping that someone reading this piece might be able to locate my Emilia Karaboeva from Bulgaria.  It is possible that she and her husband have moved from Bulgaria but I have no way of knowing that.  I would just love to open my email one day soon and find :  "Hello from Emilia."

With this background, I hope you will read Emilia's study--"Bulgarian Street  'Necrolog'--The Multiplied Sophisiticated Face of Death " by Emilia Karaboeva--with an enhanced appreciation of the printed words as well as the remarkable photographs.



I am everlastingly astonished and amazed at the wonder of all things technical, the internet and all its incarnations. I can remember when my father installed two way radios in his oil field servicing trucks so he could talk to his guys and track the progress of a well. I thought it was magic. I can remember when he got his first mobile phone in the car--with long distance, even. Hard to believe. So you can imagine my thrill at the unbelievable , unimaginable feats of magic made possible by today's cell phones, email , Facebook and the like. Today's column is a very happy story.

As you may know, my longtime serious literary interest is in the art of the obituary. I am sure that "happy" and "obituary" may not often be found in the same story. However, the study of the obituary has given me many happy experiences--none happier than the one I share with you today.

At the outset of my obituary interest, it became apparent that there were not many writers who specialized in this genre of documenting the dead. In fact, I didn't really know the difference between a death notice and a true obituary. Having been a teacher of English, speech and creative writing, I began to wonder how a writer would fall heir to the obituary assignment at a newspaper....and more important, what was an obituary writer like? What did one look like?

To make a ten year literary journey short, I decided to convene some Texas obituary writers for a workshop in which they would tell me what they did, how they got the obit assignment and how they managed to write about death day after day. The First Great Obituary Writers' Conference was held in 1999 in Archer City, Texas at the Spur Hotel. Obituary writers from the major dailies in Texas attended: Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Light, among others. In addition there were conferees who were writers of a general beat who wanted to know more about the art of the obituary.

Over the next years our band of obit writers would grow into the International Association of Obituarists including journalists, academics, historians, genealogists, artists, filmmakers and, of course, obituary writers for news media. Throught the magic of the internet, interest and our numbers began to spread around the globe. We shared this interest with our colleagues in Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, Italy, Israel, Canada, Norway, Africa, Mexico among others as well as a wide swath of United states obituarists. To date we have held ten annual international conferences for obituarists.

Each day it was exciting to open the email page to see who might be sending a note about the art of the obituary. It is still a thrill to see an email from a new contact with information about the obituary customs in their country. One such email arrived on my computer in late 2002. The subject line read, "Hello from Bulgaria." At first I imagined it was a joke from one of my international obit colleagues or at least a travelogue from one of them who might be visiting Bulgaria. To my everlasting surprise--and joy--this was truly an inquiry from a young woman in Bulgaria who somehow had read an article about our obituary studies. We had been featured in an article in the venerable New Yorker magazine as well as a number of print and online pieces. PBS and NPR had interviewed us on several radio features as well. Not knowing exactly how the writer found us, I was stunned with a contact from Bulgaria.

This mystery email soon revealed a plea from a young woman who was working on a graduate study of the obituary and the customs of death in her country, Bulgaria. To make matters more pressing, the young woman was doing this on her own since there was no graduate professor to guide her or to even help her with her study. She had very limited access to historical materials, libraries were in short supply and apparently there were few historians available to her for the research phase of her study.

My new friend in Bulgaria, Emilia, could not have hit a more willing target than I! This challenge of helping her and of putting her in touch with the resourceful obituarists in our association was exactly my calling. Within the matter of a few minutes and hours, Emilia had a new family of friends, teachers and experts who could guide her. Chief among those was Dr. Nigel Starck, a univerity professor at the University of South Australia, who--much like Emilia--had put an inquiry in an email "bottle" and tossed it to me in the magic internet ocean some years earlier. Dr. Starck took up the mantle of sharing standards of academia and pointing Emilia to resources including some of his own writing on the subject.

Emilia continued her work in Bulgaria and promised to share her dissertation-- complete with photographs of obituary customs in Bulgaria--with us for an upcoming conference of our group. Although it was not going to be possible for her to attend in person, she allowed us to distribute her presentation at the 2003 conference. It was and is a fascinating study of death notices and obituary customs in a culture far different from our own. It only added to my thirst for learning about these customs in the world's cultures. Emilia was very grateful for the guidance she had received from our obituarists and , in particular, from Dr. Starck in Australia.

That was 2003. Over the years I had wondered about Emilia. She told me she was moving soon after her study was shared with our conferees. I, too, made a move soon after. Our communication was complicated by our having lost one another on the internet highway of life.

Time passes. A few months ago I established a blog site for the discussion of the art of the obituary. I posted Emila's study and photos online for those who might find it of interest. And on a very long shot, I searched the internet for my missing Emilia--knowing that it had been years since I had heard from her and knowing that any number of things could have happened to her. I hoped for an email to pop up saying "Hello from Bulgaria."

Last night the gods of the planet and the internet smiled on me. There before my eyes was the long-awaited email: "Hello from Bulgaria." Screams of delight could be heard for miles, I am sure. My Emilia--that teeny tiny needle of a friend--had been found in that gigantic intergalactic internet haystack. A more welcome gift I cannot imagine. Her heartfelt thanks for the help of Dr. Starck and me along the way made my day; made my week!

"Hello from Texas, Emilia!"

Bulgarian Street "Necrolog"--The Multiplied Sophisticated Face of Death

Bulgarian Street "Necrolog"--The Multiplied Sophisticated Face of Death

by Emilia Karaboeva

It's not unusual in Bulgaria these days to hear foreigners asking: Are all these people, with their faces posted all over the streets, wanted by the police? The truth is that these names and faces, watching us from every street corner, trees or lamp posts, belong not to the criminals but to deceased people. By which answer this fact in not less impressive.

The impressive thing for Bulgarians in this anecdote story is something else - that for them it's natural to live watched by the dead, while for the strangers it's at least exotic behavior.

The 'Necrolog' - term used in Bulgaria for printed death notices - is usually white sheet of paper in form generally known as A4 (8.26 high/11.68 inches wide) with printed black and white text composed in certain shape. (see Appendix - scanimage64)

Text announces someone’s death or burial (when title is 'Sad News', 'Farewell', 'Last Goodbye', 'Died...') or memorial service (when title is 'Remembrance', 'Sad memorial service', ' Sorrow' etc.)

Excerpt the title necrolog contents:

- The Holy Cross or other symbol that represents religious affiliation of the dead person;

- the name of the deceased person (sometimes just his/her first name or nickname or diminutive);

- text by the authors (which is from few words to few paragraphs long, sometimes in poems) placed under the name. Text is addressed to the deceased one, speaks in person to the dead man explaining the sorrow of the kin and how they suffer. Sometimes the obit’s text includes information on events that happened after the death of the man - the baby was born to the family, death of another member of the family that followed, building of a home, etc.

- without the case of the very first necrolog (the actual notification about the persons' death) in most cases the following necrologs contain the picture/photo (sometimes color one and almost always the head picture from the ID/passport);

- in some cases, depending on author’s wish, necrolog includes additional information for the deceased man - the reason for the death, his/her birthdate and deathdate, his/her job occupation, number of his/her social roles and explaining the relation to the surviving kin;

- message for the date, hour and the place of the burial ceremony or memorial service and invitation to all relatives, friends and people who knew him/her to join the service;

- at the bottom are placed the authors of the necrolog. They can be summarized simply by the word 'The suffering ones', but there can be detailed explanation of the kinship, some first names or there can even be no authors at all;

- with the very small font on many necrologs we can find a short advertising of the company that produces them but this element is not a basic one in the structure of the necrolog.

Nercolog is issued right after someone’s death, usually by the closest kin, but quite often by friends, colleagues, class-mates or even by institutions. The sex, social or economic status of the deceased is not a driving force behind this. The only difference is that necrologs with more biographical data and printed in larger forms belong to famous personalities like people from politics, culture etc. These are issued by the institutions. The necrologs issued for the same deceased people by private kin/friends follow the traditional form.

After the first necrolog the same dead person is remembered by the following ones after 40 days, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 18 months and then every next year with the last 'frontier' dependent on the fact are there any living people that still remember the deceased one. During my research on the event I registered 60 years as the longest period after the death of an 'ordinary' Bulgarian remembered with the street necrolog and 65 years - with the obit published in the newspaper.

The rhythm of the issuing follows the 'individual rite time' of the deceased person that - as it is prescribed by the Orthodox Christian tradition - begins with his/her death. Necrologs are posted on the entrance door of the deceased's house, on the church building, at the graveyard and on the places related to his/her life. They can mailed to relatives or friends too.

The same necrologs - usually reprinted by the original - are published in local newspapers with biggest circulation in Bulgaria. But we have to point out that - even after dailies offer sometimes 2 to 3 pages for this - printed ones are much more less in numbers than the street ones.(see Appendix, v. 24 chasa, 21 September 2002 - DeathNotice_3) To some extent this is related to the press restrictions imposed by the communist regime during 1944-1989 period. But 'newspaper' necrologs tradition was revived 12 years ago and even though street necrologs totally dominate the culture.

And it is really a total domination of a mass event because it affects everyone living in Bulgaria without relation to his/her nationality or religious affiliation. In fact every ethnic Bulgarian is remembered after his/her death with necrolog (almost without exception they all are Orthodox Christians) we can find necrologs for ethnic Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Muslim-Bulgarians, Germans, French and others that sometimes didn't even live in the country but have relatives in Bulgaria. Muslim Bulgarians stopped issuing necrologs after the fall of communist dictatorship because their religion prohibits this. Even though we can still find today street necrologs issued by the Muslims on the Balkans - good example is Kosovo, located in neighboring Southern Serbia with over 90% Muslim population.

Thousands and thousands of necrologs can be seen all over the cities and villages of Bulgaria - they are posted on the doors, building walls, message boards, bus stops. street lamp posts, trees (even in the parks - see Appendix - Image011.jpg) For Bulgarians the necrolog is such a common event - they are so much used to them, that it's part of the street face, element of the day-to-day life - that is accepted without any consideration. Most of Bulgarians - even the ones that happened to travel abroad - think that there are necrologs in every country in the world and are shocked to notice their absence the same way foreigners are shocked to see them in such huge numbers in Bulgaria. Generations were raised with this black and white face of the World Beyond. Children are grown with this placarding of the Death and the suffering of the survivors that somehow they are unconsciously preparing themselves for the fate that comes upon them, too.

And even that, the necrolgs printing is not a local tradition. It comes from Western Europe as a phenomenon that first entered newspapers. It's just after the Liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks in 1878 that the tradition of the street necrologs is born.

The earliest printed necrologs can be found in 'Tzarigradski vestnik' ('Tzarigrad newspaper') in 1849 and 1850. The first one (dated 14 May 1849) is reprinted epitaph inscription from the tombstone of Petar P. Nikolov, who died of cholera in the city of Tulcha on 17 June 1848. This is a classic example of the epitaph, in poems, written by the name of the deceased and directed to the readers.

It advises them:

'Oh. Dear reader

Understanding this

Stay in sorrow and say:

'Young, dear and precious,

You're with the Living God!

Be blessed your soul

And light the soil on you!


How many died

and were blessed

May your memory live forever,

Peter, as you rest!'

The second necrolog is dated 21 October 1850. It comes closer to the obituary tradition and is titled 'Spomen ca Tchorbadjy Stoyana Teodorova Tcholakova' ('Memory on Mrs. Stoyana Teodorova Tcholakova'). At the beginning of this detailed obituary is the death notice followed by biography and praise of her personal qualities and honored life of the deceased.

On the bottom is the ritual formula:

'For good deeds

lets be long memory on Earth

for the deceased

and peaceful relief by God

with the pious people in Heaven!'

Until 1878 most of obituaries were composed by the editing staff of the newspapers or by outside authors. General trend is obituaries to be lengthy, some of them even printed in the subsequent issues of the newspaper (as the case of obituary from 1857 in Tzarigradski vestnik, titled 'Pismo ot Moskva' ('Letter from Moskow'), published on two pages in two subsequent numbers from 6 June and 15 June 1857). They contain more or less detailed biography of the deceased plus the explanation of his/her virtues and how did his/her funeral proceeded. Most of them aim to give good example to other Bulgarians to follow. It's good to mention that almost all of the obituaries are for the freedom fighters that died for Bulgarian political or Church liberation.

It's only at the end of the period that necrologs can be found - the ones that resemble the form that soon will dominate both the street and newspaper necrologs after the Liberation in 1878. Usually these were notices for people that weren't part of the liberation movement, men and women that were unknown to the general public, with date and reason for their death plus few words for their life.

In the necrolog in 'Zornitca' ('Morning Star') newspaper from 3 February 1877 girlfriends of Radka lajkova from the city of Tulcha notify the readers that she died after long illness. And they suffer, because she was virgin 'which prepared herself to be one of the best housewives and mothers; and she was just to enter her life as a spouse when the ugly Death took her away from this world'.

The very first necrolog - outside the newspaper tradition - discovered in the course of my research is from 1850. But it is under question to call it 'street necrolog' because obviously it's purpose was to serve as an invitation and was sent by mail to certain pre-selected people. Because of political and religious consideration this necrolog was printed in the city of Galatz, Romania.

The text follows:

'We invite Mr… in the morning at ... o'clock

at the Holy Mass in the Church of 'St

Paraskeva' at the sermon in the name of the deceased Bulgarian

non-female (as it's in original - E.K.) Greek Vassillie Evstatievych

Apprilov, who was laid to rest two years ago.

Galatz 20 May 1850

Typography Zhurnaluj Danubio

And signed by the hand of V. Rashev'

The very first Bulgarian street necrolog in my collection comes from 1883. It's purpose was to be posted across the town to notify the general public but it still resembles as content and structure the newspaper obituaries. At least we should notice that it contains a message about the funeral that happened a week ago. Since this moment every necrolog I found during my research follows the established form - as a text and as a print. This form is different from the contemporary ones in the beginning of XXI Century and is well explained by Hariton Ignatiev in his book 'Prostranen pismovnik' ('Detailed epistle'), published in the city of Plovdiv in 1897. According to this explanation/instruction funeral notifications should be printed on a paper with black frame, with Holy Cross or allegory of Death with Cross. The necrolog should include:

'1. All close relatives/kin of the deceased - by kin and by marriage - without any omission even of the smallest ones;

2. All of the far related relatives by kin, with detailed information do they have children;

3. Their names, nicknames and their kin relation to the deceased person;

4. What was the illness - short or long, light or painful - that caused the death;

5. The age of the deceased person;

6. The day and the hour of the actual death

7. The day and the hour when the body is to be moved out from the house;

8. The name of the church where the sermon will be;

9. In the case that deceased is not well known, the address of the house from where the body will be moved out to the church'.

Necrolog should be finished with the place and the date of issuing.

'Prostranen pismovnik' stipulates that absolutely the same form should be followed for the newspapers and that in the case of suicide necrolog shouldn't be issued (today the last prescription is not followed). Then there's instruction to post necrologs on the walls at the most public places around the city.

It's important to mention that the author is explicit in his advice that it is bad manners to write long and detailed necrologs with deceased person’s qualities, details on the funeral or to be too elaborate in explaining how much suffering the death brought on the family.

The necrologs from that period that I examined in the process of this research follow that instructions to the letter. It's seen too that - by the advice and by the collected examples - that Bulgarians printed only death notices but not the ones for memorial. If there were any at that time they were exception and their number rises with the following years, the changes in the form and the moving away from the Western tradition. On the cover page of 'Prostranen pismovnik' the author underlines that he collected and summarized the best of foreign epistle guides. As confirmation to this the examples of foreign necrologs from that period in my collection - mostly from Austria-Hungary and France - confirm that there wasn't difference in necrologs writing and composing between Bulgaria and the rest of Europe . This comes to show that at the end of XIX century necrologs were posted on the streets of Western Europe with this tradition slowly disappearing. Yet even today street necrologs can be found on the street in some Western European towns - mainly in Italy.

At the same time in the newspapers develops another from of death notices. These are articles written by professionals with elaborate story on the life and the person of the deceased. Special attention is applied to the funeral. But these stories were dedicated to famous persons (mostly from the politics) in Bulgaria or in foreign countries. These articles are close to the newspaper event that the Western tradition calls 'obituary'.

Soon after the communist coup d'etat in September 1944 necrologs disappeared from newspapers in Bulgaria. The only exception - and they followed obituary from - were the ones for communist party officials but because of ideological reasons they were quite distorted. At the same time the street necrologs blossomed evolving to their contemporary form. For the first time appeared necrologs without religious symbols and even with black five-pointed star as a sign that deceased belonged to communist party. In 1940’s there were some necrologs with photographs of the deceased, during 1950’s their number increased and today there are few necrologs without photo. Gradually the part of the necrolog dedicated to the list of suffering survivors and the one dedicated to the death circumstances were reduced to clear the way to more rich and emotional texts dedicated to the dead person. Quite often we can see how these texts (even if they are short) dominate the structure of the necrolog, while almost everything else - except the name and the photo of the deceased - disappeared. On more and more rare occasions was written the invitation to the funeral or memorial service and the authors were omitting their kin relation to the deceased or necrologs were anonymous.

This changes not simply the structure and the look of the necrolog but its direction, too. In previous decades we witnessed the functioning of the necrolog as a message for someone’s death and funeral but this function faded away and is replaced by the new one - the one of ritual relationship with the dead.

The change can be traced back to 1930’s but it is clear since 1950’s. The explanation to this is the tectonic shift in structure of the urban population that followed large migration from the villages to the cities. Village loses its people, the city loses its pre-war urban culture. The necrolog as a city phenomenon starts to transform itself influenced by the incoming traditional rural culture.

This way in the structure of the contemporary necrolog can be traced elements of at least three culture traditions:

1. The well established on the Balkans attitude to the Death, the dead ones and rites related to their funeral and remembrance;

2. Constituting role of the Christian thinking of Death and Christian rites;

3. The modern man' attitude to the Death, dead ones and the new ways to explain it to the public.

If we accept that the notion of Death as non-being, as total annyhilation of the personality is a modern times priority we'll found that tyhe man generaly thinks about the dying as a passage from one reality to another and about the Death as another life after actual death.

In Bulgarian traditional culture the notion of Death is as a passage from 'this' to the 'other' world where the after life starts as a this life's continuation. The outer world is accepted in the terms of 'this" one; the deceased live in families and villages as it's on Earth, soul is not dying but is immortal and 'keeps the same form, same look of the dead body, even is dressed in same clothes'.

The process of distingushing both worlds and the notion of passage assumes the existence of a border line, treshold, limit. According to the traditional culture this border 'opens' itself in certain periods when there are needed terms, circumstances to establish and support contact with the 'outer world'. Usualy these are Saturdays, holidays and the periods from the year sicle, when the border between both worlds are easy to be overcomed (All Souls' Day). But during the rest of the time the border should be re-established so the influence of the Death should not be allowed in the world of living. In this context cross-border contacts are aimed at re-establishing, confirmation of this border, regulation of the relationship between two opposite but isomorphed world.

As much as necrologs are related to the post-funeral rites they should conrubute to the final passage of the deceased one to the world of the ancestors . If this fails to happend people from the 'outer world' bring the danger of return to this world in the dead body, intrusion of the evel force, evel spirits. This treshold presnts itself rather as a barrier that is lifted at certain moment and fixes exact belonging to the death or life. The enforcement of this border is achieved by the funeral rite directed to th closure of the border (Hristo Vakarelski, Poniatia i predstavi za smartta i dushata, Sofia, 1939, p.6). The necrolog issuing is consistent with the individual ritual time, with the begining established by the death, and its spread is consitent with the space, related to the decesed one - the centre is the home from where the body was moved out and the surroundings are the limits of the necrolog posting on key and potentialy dangerous places like the church, graveyardq crossroads and streets. This way the necrolog draws not simply the deceaseds' teritory, his past-present, but establishes the lock doors on every potential doorways to/from the Death. This distinctiveness is becoming more clear after 1940-es with the increasing numbrs of necrologs issued and duplication of the traditional (and to some extention with CHrtistian) memorial cycle. Up till 1940-es necrologs are issued not later than 5 years after someones death.

In the context of the traditional culture it's good to mention that in allost every ocasion the first necrolog after death is issued without a photograph of the decesed. The reason behind this for a long period was simpli technical one - it was not easy in the times before the computer to reproduce picture on paper. Today computers resolve this problem and that's why we find more and more 'Sad news' necrologs with photo. More interesting on this background is the fact that irrelevant to this inovation there's established tradition that forbids printing of the deceased photo before the 40th day after his/her death. Old people in Bulgaria use to say that 'this is bad', 'forbiden' and 'people don't do like that'. This fear can be related to the notion that up to the 40th day after the death the dead person still walks around the places he/she used to visit (necrologs are posted on these places). Another notion - and it's still in ptactice in Bulgaria -stipulates that up till the 40th day every mirror or reflecting surfave should be covered so the soul couldn't see itself and this way to embody again.

The soul can not only 'see' (and that's why it shouldn't see his/her face on the necrolog) but according to traditional notions between the two worlds there's no sound barrier. This stipulates another conact form with the deciesed - the crying for the dead. Parallel with the text of the necrolg appeares slowly and is considered as a late, contemorary event. During the first 60-65 years of the necrolog as phenomenon of Bulgarian culture - at least up to 1940-es - this parallel is absent. Gradualy with the establishing of the necrolog tradition texts come forward that totaly duplicate the structure and the spirit of the crying for the desased . Dimitar Marinov writes on this event the following: 'Crying contents biography of the deseased, his/her wishes and longings, his/her ocupation, his/her pofession and fate. Crying contents his/her real estate or family situation after his/her death and closes with commission to bring 'all the best' to all relatives that died before him/her'. In this the notion of the decesed is as as living one and the dialogue with him/her is as with a living one, deceased is called back from the Death, he/she is blamed that he/she is not comming back, questions are asked to him/her. Kaufman quotes text from the necrolog from 1984 with close resemblense of the crying:

'Fo forty days I'm waiting for you to come back and you're not comming! Why? Is it for the river of our hot tears is deep and you can't cross it? Or the black earth is too heavy so you can't stand up? Or the darcness is upon you so you can't find the way back? Or you already don't remember us? But you don't speak!'. The same authors mention that in 1930-es and 1940-es they witnessed necrologs that made their readers cry. These days we can find on the streets moving words to the deceased closed to the example quoted above.

'At the begining I neede you so much and you were next to me. Than you neede me and I wasn't nexrt to you. now I'm looking for you, looking in the infinity, where are you... I don't know. I need you Mum!'.

These days in necrologs is usual t use talking by the first name to the deceased, but the elaborate explanation of the suffering is not usual. Most of the texts are short and a lot of them are formal:

'Bye, Zhan!

You wll always be with us!

Class-mates from the French College'


'On 23 January we remember 40 days since Milka Todorova Savova left us.


More and more are the necrologs of that kind and very often they even don't include the full name of the decesed - just the nikname - there're no authors or thei names are reduced too to first names that mean something only to the dead person and this is another sign of moving away from the tradition of the ritual crying. At the same time they represent moving away from the traditional function of the necrolog as a message to the public.

There's another relation of the necrolog to thetraditions - this time to the Christian prayer for the dead. If the relation to the crying is in the content and function, the parallel with prayer is in function and sense. Orthodox Christisanity stipulates that the fate of the deceased is unknown to the living ones. After the 40th day temporary verdict is put upon soul and the final verdict comes on The Judgement Day. The living ones have un obligation to pray fro the dead ones and this way to obtain by prayer peace and sins redeptmion. Believe in the force of the prayer 8is based on love that keeps going after the death - the love to the deceased ones is not in vain.

Western Christian tradition is similar to the Orthodox one. Even during the first centuries of Chtristianity it was accepted to write down the names of the dead people in church books so they can be read out during the cermon and the believers can pray for them. In the Middle Ages these church writings were turned into lists (necrologium, obituarium, regula, martyrologium) that were kept and filled by the Church and monasteries. In VII century A.D. these lists were quite common. After the death of bishop a messenger was sent with rotuli - death message. Rotuli content eulogy, biogrphy with honor to the deceased qualities and at the end it was said that regardless of his deeds he was a man and therefore unperfect so the living ones should pray for his soul.

In Christian Church the tradition to read the names of deceased was well established sometime at the end of II century A.D. and begining of III century A.D. But in the Western Churches this tradition is not so spread as in Eastern ones. This rite fades in Catholic Church with the establishment of the idea of the Purgatory. According to some Protestant Churches relationship with the dead ones is immposible so they refused ti accept the need fro the pray. Quite the opposite - the Eastern Orthodox Church up till today keeps the days of reading the deceased names. The motive behind saviour function ofthe prayer and the mess can be found even in some fairy tales from Eastern Europe. One Russian fairy tale is about a soldier that goes by the order of his tzar to the other world to understand how his father 0 the previous tzar lives there. The soldier goes there just to see that the old tzar is tortured by the devils. Soldier asks the tzar how he lives and he answers: 'Ah, soldier! Bad is my life. Make a bow to my son and ask him to order a cermon for my soul; and maybe God will put mercy on me and will free me from ethernal pain'.

The difference in the attitude towards the ritual side of the reading of the deceased names is eventualy one of reasons behind the differences between the content, structure and functions of the Eastern necrologs and Western obituaries.

The necrolog in Bulgaria to some extention seizes the funtion of the prayer in mentioning with love and hope the deceased names and with its formula for memotising and peacifying of the soul. The most common word are 'Deep bow to your light memory', 'Sleep well your ethrnal dreem', 'Peace to your ashes'. But you can find some more elaborate wording: 'Lets remembr him, pray to the God and make a bow'.

or even detailed writing of the full prayer:

'Dear Lord, Jesus Christ,

and you Holy Mother,

Take close to you

our dear spouse and father


Let his road to you, Dear Lord,

be light and fast and filled with light

and free of earthly pains!

To be in harmony and beaty

together with those that are already there.

And who loves you!

And to be bright and beatiful

the momory for him in the minds

of those that loved and love him here

in the living world...

I'm calling upon them:

Remember his pure heart and thoughts

his honoured deeds!

and say together with his relatives -

Holy oil on his bones!


(Chepelare, Bulgaria, 1999, authors collection)

(Some similar wording can be found in Western Europe too - obituary from France, 1895 , uses the wording “Que son ame repose en paix” and another one from 1903 uses the wording “Priez pour lui”)

But the necrolog is something even more than this - with its mass circulation it positions the reader in the role of the one who prayes or at least makes good wishing to the deceased. This way the whole community is asked to help the soul in its hard way to the ethernety. The hope that soul' fate will be better multiplyes.

Christian tradition stipulates that the death should be constantly remembered as an endless push for repentance. In the paradigm of the Christian conception of the world the necrolog turns itself into behaviour corrective, the facs of the deceased around us become silent judges of our deeds. They remind us that the life has an end, that there are values beyond the day-to-day life, re-direct the attention from the body care to the soul care - the care for the soul that shouldn't leave the body without repentance. This way necrolog becomes important ellement of prepearedness for our own death.

Some authors claim that in the West the Death is covered and limited , that for the living ones the deceased becomes an 'ousider' for society or 'forbiden for society' , that upon Death is imposed heavy silence and society and individuals don't recognise the Death. To the opposite, in Bulgaria street necrolog in parradox fuses the trend of refusing and covering the death with the trnd of its public announcement , mass circulation even imposing on the public space of the living. Street necrolog secretly combines living and dead ones, sufferung ones and sympatizers, death as a fact and death as a sign. Death and the sorrow are not under taboo but a rather opened to the maximum, moved outside o eeryone can see it - under black& white mask in mass circulated newspapers, undercovered as gossip. In this socialy sanctioned, accepted form, death is imprisoned, sent into exile in necrolog - we see it ant it looks on us from there, but there is still irreversible broderline - as much as necrolog is this borderline itself - psyhologic and ritual one. Necrolog takes the death outside, in the life, shows it just ti hide it. And to fuse it with the being.

With the multiplication of the faces we know and recognize on the street necrologs rises the feeling of sympathy, of participation, of community belonging - to the world of the deceased and the world of suffering ones. Identification feeling is feeded by the very importatnt part of the necrolog - it's part of fureal rites (in terms of Christianity, citizenship and political terms) but at the same time the street necrolog in Bulgaria is repeat, analogy, joint sign of the fureal rite. As a sophisticated sign of a prayer, grave and cermon or in more simple way as a message, crying and remembering, necrolog is manifestation of almost all ellements of the funeral rite and symbolically replaces them withou ignoring them. That's why more and more people issue necrologs without actually going to the graveyard or without ordering the cermon in the church thinking that this is ehough. Necrolog becomes the tool of moving the event from one place to another, the participation tool. the tool of presence. For the passers-by the necrolog IS the funeral rite. This is a play mode by which the reader enters step by step every role of the actual funeral rite. At the end, the reader enters the role of the deceased without loosing his conciouss of a outside observer, of a witness. Counciouss is splitted - to pass beyond the surface of the necrolog, to feel the outer world and to enter it through its own thoughts and well wishing.

This unconciouss deed is repeated again and again in every stop infront of a necrolog. And if we push the feeling a little more and focus ourselves on the messages of the multiplied death all over the city we can start an endless funeral procession to our own death. We can foresee, we can in advance pass through our own funeral.


Bulgarian Historical Archive (BIA), at: Bulgarian National Library 'St. st. Cyril and Methodius', Sofia, f.ІІ А, 1999

BIA, f. ІІ В 8528

BIA, f.272, a.e. 6238, l. 3

BIA, f. 271, a.e.2, l.73

Scientific Archive of The Bulgarian Accademy of Sciences (NABAN), f.11к, op.4, а.е. 285, l.40

NABAN, f.11к, op.3, а.е. 1166, l.4

Tzarigradski vestnik, 'Tzarigrad newspaper',14 May 1849

Tzarigradski vestnik, 'Tzarigrad newspaper',21 October 1850

v. Zornitca, 'Morning Star' newspaper, 3 February 1877

v. 24 chasa, '24 Hours' newspaper, 21 September 2002

v. 24 chasa, '24 Hours' newspaper, 29 October 2001


1.Aphanasiev, A. N., Narodnie russkie skazki, t.II, Moskva, 1986 г., № 214, (under second revised edition Aphanasiev, A. N., Narodnie russkie skazki, Moskva, K. Soldatenkov, 1873)

2.Aries, Philippe, L’homme devant la mort, Seuil, 1977 (in Russian, Aries, Philipp, Chelovek pered litcom smerti, Moskva, Izdatelskaya gruppa “Progress”, “Progress-Academia”, 1992)

3.Danforth, Loring M., The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1982

4.Enciklopedicheskiy slovar, Brockhaus, F. A. & I. A. Ephron, t. XX a, SPb, 1897)

5.Ephrem Sirin, Psaltir, Blajenstva, Veliko Tarnovo, Abagar,1992 (under second Russian edition of the six volumes work Tvorenia sviatago otca nashego Ephrema Sirina, Sergiev Posad, 1895)

6.Hieromonah Seraphim /Rouz/, Dushata sled smartta, Ruse, Dorostolo-Chervenska mitropolia, 1994

7.Hristianstvo, Enciklopedicheskiy slovar, S. S. Averincev, A. N. Meshkov, J. N. Popov, Moskva, Bolshaya Rossiyskaya enciklopedia, 1995

8.Ignatiev, Hariton, Prostranen pismovnik, Plovdiv, Hr. G. Danov, 1897

9.Kaufman, Nikolay i Dimitrina Kaufman, Pogrebalni i drugi oplakvania v Bulgaria, Sofia, BAN, 1988

10.Marinov, Dimitar, Izbrani proizvedenia, t.II, София, Nauka i izkustvo, 1984

10.Marinov, Dimitar, Narodna viara i religiozni narodni obichai, Sofia, Nauka i izkustvo, 1994

12.Roth, Klaus and Juliana, “Public Obituaries in South-east Europe”, in International Folklor Review, 7 (1990), 80-87 (a german version “Offentliche Todesanzeigen in Sudosteuropa. Ein Beitrag zum Verhaltnis zu Tod und Trauer”, in Osterreichishe Zeitschrift fur Volkskunde, 91 <1988>, 253-67)

13.Thomas, Louis-Vincent, Smartta, Sofia, Fakel, 1994

14.Vakarelski, Hristo, Poniatia i predstavi za smartta i dushata, (sravnitelno pholklorno izuchavane), Sofia, Kultura, 1939

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Blanche; Wooden

Blanche was such a happy part of our television memory that is difficult to think  she is gone. Of course, we can see her--along with her Golden Girlfriends--forever, thanks to television.  Rue McClanahan played many other roles in her career but she absolutely owned Blanche!  You will read many obituaries and tributes to her life and career but my observation of her is how perfectly she carved out that type of female whom we all recognize: slightly ditzy, a bit naughty, completely crazy for men . Yet we still loved her. 

The interesting thing about Blanche was how she fit with the other Golden pieces of the puzzle:  Bea, Estelle and Betty, each playing a sweetly stereotypical woman who made life fun.
And now, our 88 year old Betty White is left to be Betty White--hosting Saturday Night Live, starting a new sit-com next week and and still making us, laugh outloud. 
Goodnight, Blanche.


Sports fans know John Wooden's life like the back of their hand.  But they are not the only ones.
Because of his remarkable commitment to truth and teaching by example, he is a coach for all time.  Take a moment to seek out the many articles on sports pages and online that will be written today in honor of John Wooden.

Monday, May 31, 2010

If You Are Alive...

“If You Are Alive Today, You Need An Obituary!”

By Carolyn Gilbert

It is an odd topic of conversation for the living…but an impossible topic of conversation for those who have gone to their ultimate destination. Unlike funereal or burial planning, obituary planning can be fun! Just think of it,  rather than having some stuffy writer who probably will never have heard of you write your parting legacy, you and/or the writer of your choice can produce the obituary yourselves. An added benefit is, of course, that you as subject can give your final approval, as it were, to the document. In addition, you can select the photo you like best to accompany the obituary. All that is missing is the date and cause of death. This information is fill-in-the-blank stuff.

If this entire subject seems a bit weird to you, I implore you to stay with me as I build my case for the advancer obituary not just for the rich and famous but also for the average Joe or Jane. How many times have you read the obituary page and wondered (1.) why the obituary didn’t really reflect the person’s life and (2.) why on earth they ran that photo! The answer to both, in most cases, is simply a lack of planning. However, to be perfectly honest, most people don’t realize that they themselves can control their obituary destiny.

Who among us would voluntarily settle down with pen in hand to compose this ultimate short story—the obituary—to be distributed far and wide upon our demise? On the other hand, who among us would voluntarily leave such an important piece of family history to strangers?

Once you are over the hurdle of obituary awareness, go with me to the next step. The obituary enjoys a unique place in one’s personal history and family genealogy as well as in history of the community-at-large. Any genealogist or history buff will tell you how critical the obituary becomes in matters of research. The more factual and informative the obituary, the more complete the picture of the culture and generation of the life described.

If the obituary is a mere listing of date of birth, date of death and survivors, it serves a shallow purpose, indeed. In fact, this is merely a death notice and not an obituary. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing format for the ill-prepared or uninformed.

In defense of the basic obituary, it is often a matter of timing that affects the quality of the obituary. Most traditions lean toward a very quick turnaround for the announcement of death and the obituary. At a time when the family is deep in grief and shock, there are so many important decisions to be made that the obituary often gets lost in the maze.

The increases in cremations and memorial services to be held in the weeks or months following the actual death give more time for the development of the ultimate obituary or memorial. This relieves some of the tension regarding timelines and distribution of the obituary.

But why leave this to chance? The obituary is actually a gift to one’s family—prepared by the leading character. It has long been a practice for writers to prepare the “advancer” obituary for persons of prominence or infamy.

After all, we revel in the well-written obituary for public figures. We love to learn vicariously of the little-known pieces of the life puzzle of movie stars, elected officials or villains. In most cases, seasoned obituary writers know how to approach their subjects for that sensitive “advancer” interview. However, it has been reported that on occasion the writer will request the interview without fully revealing the real purpose. The result has been that on completion of the interview the subject will be very anxious to know just when the “article” is going to run! Guess that depends, doesn’t it?

At any rate, it is important for us mere mortals to realize that we, too, can be sure that our obituary is done in advance with accuracy and thoughtfulness.
It is amazing how time-consuming it is to compile the exact names, dates and references to one’s life experiences. Even the experienced writer is challenged to produce a meaningful obituary at a moment’s notice.

Do yourself and your family a favor by at least making an outline of life events, relatives, accomplishments, and other important components of your life. With a smile, we refer to this document as the Obit Kit: a sort of do-it-yourself obituary kit to be used when the time comes!

My favorite self-written obituary begins with these words:

"If you are reading this now, I must be dead!"

While this blog is not intended to be a listing of obits, one can hardly overlook some of the recent deaths in the entertainment industry--notably Dennis Hopper, Gary Coleman, Art Linkletter.  The wide diversity and gigantic gulf among lifestyles, career achievement and legacy of these men is more than a little interesting. 

Those of us who study the art of the obituary could write a dissertation on the various obituaries that have been written about these three since their deaths.  Things said...things left unsaid...things revealed:  fascinating work.  Truth or fiction? Do a bit of research for the obits and make your own conclusions.  Note: I highly recommend Adam Bernstein's obituary for Dennis Hopper that appeared in The Washington Post. 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sharing the Footprints of Life and Death: Genealogy and the Obituary By Carolyn Gilbert

The study of genealogy and the art of the obituary share important components.  However, sometimes we fail to explore the interdisciplinery aspects of the two.  The article below was written by Carolyn Gilbert at the request of Sandra Luebking, Editor, Federation of Genealogical Societies, for their FORUM Magazine for inclusion in the summer issue 2008. 


Sharing the Footprints of Life and Death

By Carolyn Milford Gilbert, Founder
International Association of Obituarists

Both obituarists and genealogists are the subjects of a number of common misconceptions by the public. One is that we are quiet, nearly invisible researchers and writers who march to a different drummer---maybe one that is draped in black and carries a scythe! Another is that our chosen discipline is one that is dull, unblinking, set in stone and carries us through strange silent libraries and cemeteries. The great unwashed public often thinks the subjects of genealogy and obituaries are of little interest to those who are alive and well.

Au contraire!! While we as obituary writers and genealogists share a common interest in those who have gone to their just reward, it is not their death in which we are primarily interested: it is their LIFE. It is easy enough to put birth date and date of death after a person’s name; however, our mutual interest is in what happened in the space between those dates.

A major difference between our chosen passions is that genealogists usually have a vested interest in the journey in order to discover personal connections and pathways. As obituarists, we typically are writing a life story about strangers with whom we are not even acquainted. Of course, in both categories there are professionals who offer their skills on contract and are hired to assist individual clients.

Obituarists have the disadvantage of not being able to interview the subject of the obituary (unless the obit is written in advance with the assistance of the subject.) Obituaries are sometimes bland notices of death listing survivors, time and place of funeral / memorial, and the presiding celebrant. However, the obituary we treasure is the one sharing life history, family members, accomplishments, ambitions, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures. We often refer to the obituary as the world’s shortest short story. Many times it is the only article documenting a person’s life.

Another drawback to obituary writing is the “deadline” ( pardon the pun) we face in preparing the material. In cases of tragedy or unanticipated demise, a writer may have only a few hours to gather information, interview family, research history and turn out a meaningful piece of journalism for the next issue. This fact of life and death calls for an extraordinary writer who can perform under duress day after day.

Of course, we obituarists think the grass is always greener on the other side of the equation—such as genealogy. You may have plenty of time to track your ancestors from the old world to your present location. You may be able to travel to out-of-the –way places in order to research the genealogy of family or friend. You may have the luxury of interviewing real, live sources who can give you lots of time and marvelous memories to add to your search. You may be able to access the many emerging sources of data to enhance your challenge. You might even search for obituaries in order to gain insight into the life for which you are searching!

It is here where our two interests intersect. We as obituarists sometimes find ourselves the unwitting explorer of genealogy as we seek to flesh out life stories on our assignments. Time constraints might prevent us from being able to delve as deeply as we would like into family genealogy of a subject. However, even a skeletal outline of genealogy gives the obituarist more information to weave into the obituary and, perhaps, a contact with whom to speak.

An interesting question: which came first—the obituary or genealogical footprint?

The answer is probably like the chicken and the egg query. Who knows? It occurs to me that we have a symbiotic relationship so intertwined in technique and research that we could be blood brothers. But I suppose genealogy would disprove that!
We know that obituaries are like bread crumbs on that trail of genealogy you follow. Your research often informs our writing as well.

The International Association of Obituarists includes a number of genealogists who have been very valuable to our conferences over the years. In fact, they have posed a couple of questions that might be of interest to you. One question has to do with the art of the obituary and the surge of professionalism and literary quality of the obituary during the 1980’s. In fact, some historians refer to this period as the “Golden Age” of obituary writing.

This improvement can be traced to an American obituarist who took the road less traveled in order to make the obituary a living, breathing document. It was Alden Whitman, the creative writer of obituaries for The New York Times, who went beyond the standard obituary format by interviewing friends and family of the deceased in an effort to make the obituary more personal, more biographical and more reflective of the true spirit of the subject. He relayed life experiences—some poignant and some humorous, quotes from friends as well as stories of success and failure.

At about the same time, Hugh Massingberd of the Daily Telegraph in London, U.K.,
perfected his obituary style in this land of great obituary writers by injecting his great wit, his unbelievable store of knowledge of the realm and his magnificent writing. It was during this period that Massingberd engineered the collections of great obituaries from the Daily Telegraph. Although Massingberd suffered from poor health and had to resign far too early from his duties of obituaries editor, he trained, cajoled and inspired a cadre of young journalists by his example. Hugh Massingberd died on Christmas Day 2007 . His obituary was written by his protégés led by Andrew McKie , current obituaries editor, Daily Telegraph.

Another question inquiring minds seem to want to know is whether or not I have written my own obituary. The answer is “No” since I have not yet expired! The real reason is that I still have lots of things to accomplish and I wouldn’t want to leave them out. As a former teacher of English and creative writing, I often asked students to draft their own obituary. It was a good exercise in self-appraisal ; however, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, students were more mortified than inspired. But it certainly got their attention as to how important it is to realize that one’s entire life would eventually be reduced to a few hundred words in the daily news.

The art of the obituary combined with the science of genealogy provides us with the humanistic record of one’s life. There is plenty of room for error----like the obituary containing information that is blatantly untrue (but unchallenged!) Because standard paid obituaries are not checked for factual accuracy except to confirm the death, many obits there are that have portrayed the subject as far more accomplished than he was in truth. There have also been separate obits submitted by warring sides of a family that omit or include facts and relatives depending on which side of the family wrote the obituary! This can really mislead or at least confuse the genealogical side of the journey.

Genealogy provides a graphic path of families for all to see. The most graphic example I have seen of the “family tree” approach to genealogy was on the wall of the family room in the historic ranch house at the King Ranch, Kingsville, Texas. The entire wall was covered with a rendering of an actual tree on whose branches rested each descendent of the well-known, wealthy ranching family. On close inspection, it was observed that the wife of one of the heirs was missing from her branch. Our tour guide explained that when the divorce occurred, the divorcee was simply painted out of the tree! Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right, does it? But it does confirm the human element of research.

In the end, it is clear that we do, indeed, share many common footprints---the footprints of life and death.


This article was written by Carolyn Gilbert at the request of Sandra Luebking, Editor of the Federation of Genealogical Societies FORUM Magazine for inclusion in the summer issue 2008.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

One of the recurring discussions among obituary writers hinges on whether one is a "professional obituary writer" or not.  That delineation has always troubled me since it seems the world of obituarists is far more diversified than the category of newpaper obit writers.  The following comment is simply meant to inform the subject and is my opinion (professional or not!)


Who Is the “Professional” Obituary Writer Anyway ?

Virtually every discussion among people who consider themselves “professionals” in a field leads to a fundamental dilemma: what does it take to be a profession / professional?
Some of the most common answers are:

• A professional gets paid for his/her work.

• A professional makes a living by his / her work.

• A profession usually requires a special course of study.

• A profession has certain standards of excellence.

• A profession has a code of ethical behavior.

• A profession is built on truth and service.

• A profession usually offers opportunities for professional development.

• Some type of review for performance with reward for good performance and some type of punishment for poor performance.

So based on those general criteria, who are the “professionals” among the following?








Obituary writers?

Race Car Drivers?

Just for fun, take the gambler (PLEASE!) We probably have all referred to someone as a “professional gambler” at some time. Makes a living by his work? Maybe. Has certain standards of excellence? Likely. Code of ethical behavior? Likely to be minimal but there would be one. Opportunities for professional development? Practice, practice, practice. Review for performance? Oh, ye$!

Take a look at the other possible professions listed above and give thought to whether their practitioners would be considered “professionals.” The exercise is fun but not without substance. Sometimes we get a bit caught up in our own importance; considering other “professions” might give us a better view of our own status.
There has long been mumbling and grumbling regarding just who is a professional obituary writer and who is not. Are those deemed not worthy of the “professional” stamp of approval to be considered “unprofessional?” Are those who practice their craft as free lance or contract obituary writers less professional than those who are paid a salary at a news organization for writing obituaries? And what about those writers who apply their skills to writing obituaries as unpaid, volunteer writers? Are funeral home staff who compile obituaries as a part of their services considered professional obit writers? And what about the person who writes his own obituary?

My own attitude toward the “professional obituary writer” goes beyond a tightly restrictive definition that would apply only to the newspaper world of obituaries. I even ask the unthinkable question: What difference does it make whether one is a professional or non-professional obit writer as long as the obituary meets acceptable literary standards? As we can see from the rapidly changing state of newspapers, that avenue for obituary writing—and employment—is disappearing as we speak. Therefore, the attachment to a newspaper is a changing situation.

The electronic media / internet offers an expanded avenue for the work of obituary writers. However, unless one has fulltime or even part-time employment with such organizations, is he / she not a professional obituary writer? And who knows what lies in the future? Who would have imagined a few years ago that an online magazine such as Obit would emerge? If any of their writers are merely “volunteer contributors” rather than paid staff, are they not to be considered “professional?”

The real basis for the “professional obituary writer” debate seems to me to be one of exclusivity. The fewer obituary writers who can be considered “professionals,” perhaps the more recognition can be garnered by the exclusive group who promote themselves as “professional obituary writers.”

This discussion has omitted—until now—the altruistic, fundamental reasons for the obituary writer’s work in the first place:

The position was NOT designed to give you a job on a newspaper.

It was not designed to showcase your journalistic prowess.

It was not created soley for you to get a byline.

It was not just an assignment until you could move on to real journalism.

It WAS to tell the story of a life—good, bad or ugly. It WAS to put to print that story of a life for historical, genealogical purposes in what has until now been considered the official “document of record” –the newspaper. It WAS to leave a legacy of the life to the community, the family and the future. It was NOT to build your own reputation as a writer.

Consider the obituary pages of many venerable international news organizations where outstanding professional obituary writing has been the standard and the hallmark of this very specialized niche writing----with not a byline to be seen in print.

So who are the “professional obituary writers” of whom we speak? Think about it.

Carolyn Gilbert, Founder
International Association of Obituarists
May 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Colleague Cory Franklin of Chicago is a gifted obituarist who is often published in The Chicago Tribune among other publications.  His article below is an interesting opinion piece combining comments on two living divas with obit narratives for two who have recently died.  Dr. Franklin can be reached at  

One of the knocks on show business is that it is kinder to men than it is to women as they both grow older. Men like Cary Grant and Sean Connery who age gracefully often get choice acting parts while the phone stops ringing for women who were once big stars in their twenties and thirties. True enough. But this week’s news has the stories of four women, all of whom proved talent and determination can overcome. They survived and prevailed.

America’s biggest star right now might be 88-year-old Betty White. Fresh off hosting Saturday Night Live and a popular Super Bowl commercial, Betty is “hot”. Her career has spanned seven decades, all the way back to radio. She was a star of the 1980’s sit-com The Golden Girls and is also familiar for her portrayal of Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker, on the 1970’s Mary Tyler Moore Show. This spot-on parody of Martha Stewart, before there was Martha Stewart, is so uncanny you wonder if Martha used Betty’s character in creating her serious persona. Betty’s formidable acting skills, sense of humor, and ability not to take herself too seriously, are what brought her superstardom today.

Doris Eaton Travis, who died at the age of 106 was the last surviving chorus girl of the Ziegfeld Follies, a popular theatrical spectacle of the early 20th Century designed to "glorify the American girl." Impresario Flo Ziegfeld presented a show with beautiful female dancers dressed in silk and bedecked with jewels (Ms. Travis was one of the youngest when she joined the troupe). The Ziegfield Follies was the popular American counterpart to the Folies Bergre of Paris, and featured the era’s great entertainers such as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, as well as introducing songs by Irving Berlin and other leading composers.

A Ziegfield archivist said Mrs. Travis's death "marks the end of the Ziegfeld golden era of Broadway." But Ms. Travis, who remembered Woodrow Wilson as President, remained active in show business until her death. As the Washington Post described, “she was regularly featured in an annual Broadway AIDS benefit, most recently in April, when she danced a few steps with the help of two shirtless young male dancers. After rapturous applause, she walked off stage by herself.”

74-year-old Dame Julie Andrews recently staged a comeback at London’s O2 Arena. Her unique four-octave voice, described by one writer as “embodying youthful qualities of purity and sweetness” is gone now, the victim of age and a vocal cord operation she believes was mishandled. Some in attendance demanded their money back because her voice is not what it once was. She, however, continues to perform and entertain as few others can. She jokes of her obvious vocal limitations, “I want to assure you I can still sing the hell out of … Old Man River,” a song usually sung by husky-voiced men.

Her voice may not be what it used to but Julie Andrews remains one of the iconic talents of our era. When she was 21, she gave one of Broadway’s most memorable performances as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Then she went on to two of Hollywood’s greatest musical performances in The Sound of Music and as Mary Poppins (a role she got after she was turned down for the screen version of My Fair Lady). Musically, no one else has ever conquered Broadway and Hollywood in that fashion. It’s the entertainment equivalent of Michael Jordan going on to play baseball as well as he did basketball and reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame also. Paul Newman once called Julie Andrews “the last of the really great dames”.

Lena Horne died at 92 last week. Another one of the peerless 20th Century songstresses and performers, she also left her mark on Broadway and Hollywood. Her trademark ballad “Stormy Weather” is an American classic. She was African-American and her obituaries were saturated with the requisite "battled discrimination” stamp in boilerplate and cookie-cutter fashion. While true, these obits didn’t approach doing justice to her marvelous singing and acting talents, as well as her individuality. In her 70’s, she won a Tony Award for her one- woman Broadway show and she was still so beautiful that a running joke on the 1970’s sitcom Sanford and Son was comedian Redd Foxx’s infatuation with “The Horne”.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is the poet Dylan Thomas’s famous admonition that people should not accept old age passively (ironically Thomas died before he was 40). Our generation has been fortunate to experience the joie de vivre of old age expressed in the stories of Betty White, Doris Travis, Julie Andrews and Lena Horne.

Hats off to The Happy Homemaker, a Ziegfeld Girl, “the last of the really great dames” and “The Horne”.

Cory M. Franklin

In the obituary world we often discuss the wonderful world of photos that accompany an obituary. Some are awful;  some are comical;  some in crazy outfits;  some taken from driver's licenses !  Sometimes the 92 year old guy will be represented by his military photo from WWII.  Often the matriarch of the family who died at 85 will be shown in her debutante picture.  The photos tell a tale and have a story behind them as interesting as the person they depict.

Below is a great photo of a Mr. Herbert Stevenson I couldn't resist sharing.  What a smile.  This says it all.

Herbert Stevenson Obituary: View Herbert Stevenson's Obituary by Dallas Morning News

Herbert Stevenson Obituary: View Herbert Stevenson's Obituary by Dallas Morning News

Saturday, May 15, 2010

You may think of the obituary as a dying art.........
but you would be mistaken.  The purpose of this blog is to champion those who have made obituary writing a journalistic career.  The writers who have long toiled without recognition or celebration play a very important role in our lives,  in our history and in our connection to our families and communities.

This blog will welcome your queries about the art of the obituary and about those who pen the stories of the lives we honor. 

Obituarists--the word we use to encompass all those who are obit writers; those who study the obituary as a literary art;  those who follow the daily papers to learn of the lives of the famous and the unknown whose names are listed on the obituary pages and websites of the world's newspapers.

In short, the obituary page is filled with life stories of individuals we may not even know.  But once read, those stories give us yet another part of the puzzle of the cycle of life.