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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