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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.