I reached out to The Great One by e-mail, and he was happy to talk obits and why people are fascinated by them. Most people get three opportunities to make the local news, he said: Birth, marriage and death.
Hatch, match and dispatch.
"Obits bring the deceased out onto the public stage, many for the first and only time, to give them a grand goodbye and in effect, decree to all the readers that this was a life well lived," he explained. "It is a public validation."
At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kay Powell became the South's Jim Nicholson, chronicling the life and times of a Klansman-turned-civil-rights-activist, a plumbing contractor who happened to be chief magistrate of a group of Gypsies and the inglorious demise of a celestial body:
"Pluto the Planet, 76, died Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, when it was killed by the International Astronomical Union --- downgraded to a lowly 'dwarf planet.' No memorial service is planned, because it's been several years since astronomers considered Pluto a real planet."
Powell is a natural-born storyteller, in the Southern tradition. She has an eye for characters and for the telling one-liner, which she delivers with a down-home accent and throaty chuckle. She is proud of winning the confidence of the black-owned funeral homes in Georgia, which wasn't easy but came in handy when the rappers started warring with each other. She retired four years ago.
Some professionals avoid writing obits about family members and people they know. But Powell embraced writing her mama's obit, using a hybrid of neutral editorial voice and family-style death notice writing to weave in telling details about a Southern lady who enjoyed church meetings and entertaining.
Juanita Powell took in friends, relatives and strays alike: "In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company," her daughter wrote.
And there was no gilding the lily: "I don't know that it's a wart," Powell said, "but I did include Mama's poker-playing in her obit. The preacher at her funeral said he had been a Methodist preacher for 43 years and never knew what the United Methodist Women do at their meetings. After reading my obit for Mama, he said he now knows: They are playing poker."
Read an obit, learn the lay of the land
Reading obits and paid death notices is a way to take a region's pulse: In the South, it doesn't take long to notice how many people go "home" to be with Jesus. In the Northeast, the ritual of one's demise is much less flowery. People die, there's a viewing, alcoholic drinks are consumed and then they are buried, after which more adult beverages are served.
Fred Clark had his ashes fired from a cannon into Virginia's Great Wicomico River. In lieu of flowers, his obit said, he wanted mourners to "get rip-roaring drunk at home with someone you love."
In California, they are fond of celebrating lives, cremating remains and scattering them in the ocean with the help of the Neptune Society. For those who don't opt for cremation, it is not uncommon to see mourners pour a cold beer or a bottle of cognac over a grave -- a tribute borrowed from the homeboy gang culture.
Many obit writers look to London and The Daily Telegraph's obits desk, launched in 1986, for inspiration. The Telegraph is legendary for its deliciously droll send-offs. Consider: "Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 79, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things -- a whore and a spy -- 'and there were attempts to make me both,' she once wrote."
Telegraph Obituary Editor Hugh Massingberd, often referred to as "Massivesnob," delighted in details -- the more scurrilous the better. Pressed by his superiors to follow the American style of reporting the cause of death, Massingberd responded with the obituary of a man who died when his penile implant ruptured.
The New York Times has long been home to the literary, whimsical obit.
The genre was polished by the masters Alden Whitman and Robert McG. Thomas Jr. -- McG. for short. (Near the top of everyone's list is the paper's Portraits of Grief, thumbnail portraits of the people missing in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center. But that project was produced by the news staff of the Metro desk, not the obits page.)
Even at the Times, it wasn't so long ago that the obit page was viewed disdainfully as "the Irish sports pages," according to "The Dead Beat," written by Marilyn Johnson and published in 2006.
That was the year humor columnist Art Buchwald announced his own death in a video obit, part of the "The Last Word" series: "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died." The video includes narration by reporter Tim Weiner, and Buchwald's musings about his life. It was ahead of its time and showed how far the paper's obituary page had come.
Now, although an obit subject must still be deemed newsworthy, colorful characters regularly join the stuffy, important people -- thanks to deft writers such as the Times' Margalit Fox. Trained as a linguist, Fox has been writing obits for nearly nine years and seems to specialize in inventors -- of the Frisbee, the crash test dummy, the Etch-a-Sketch and the Magic Fingers vibrating bed, to name a few. But she also writes the obits that people share. Consider John Fairfax.
"John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74," reads the headline over the photo of the waving, shirtless man. He was dashingly handsome, and so of course it caught my attention. And then I read the first line: "He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there."
Delightful. But so was the second line: "He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible." And so it went, one delicious phrase tumbling into the next: "At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle. At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar." At the very end of his bracing run, he passed the time playing baccarat, the game of James Bond.
I posted the obit on my Facebook page and the response was overwhelming. There were other fans of the quirky obit out there. Who knew?
A few weeks later, a reporter friend graced my Facebook wall with the death notice of Michael "Flathead" Blanchard, who "wanted it known that he died as a result of being stubborn, refusing to follow doctors' orders and raising hell for more than six decades." He listed his hobbies as "booze, guns, cars and younger women." He informed the world that "Baba Yaga can kiss his butt," and that "many of his childhood friends that weren't killed in Vietnam went on to become criminals, prostitutes and/or Democrats."
Facebook: Obits' new stomping grounds