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Conference of Death

Adam Bernstein

Just returned from the inaugural meeting of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW), held in Portland, Ore., May 8 to 11. In preceding months, there had been debate over the name, with several wags hoping for some creepy acronym that spelled out words like COFFIN (Congress of something something something something) or VULTURES or REAPER, etc.

Good sense prevailed, even if SPOW sounds like the exclamatory description of a punch in a "Batman" cartoon.

The event attracted obit writers and editors at the Portland Oregonian, Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald, the Arizona Republic, Toronto Globe and Mail, among a bunch of smaller papers in Alaska and California.

There were two distinguished authors as well: Heather Lende, author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name" (2005), an acclaimed book about volunteering and writing obits for her neighbors in close-knit Haines, Alaska; and Jim Sheeler, a Colorado reporter who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for stories about a Marine Corps major delivering news to families about their sons who had died in Iraq.

It was an invigorating gathering, kicked off the evening of May 8 at a bar that had until recently been one of the nicest funeral homes in the city. The new owners took the atmosphere to extremes, including an organ that played somber versions of pop songs. That aside, amid much beer, we all celebrated the obituary form, agreeing it was the gem of the newsroom and a vital way of touching the community.

Obit writers are actually a pretty lively bunch, reveling in the dark humor like the doctors on "MASH." But the most touching moment was Sheeler's presentation, which focused on the Iraq War and his devotion to covering the war's toll on the homefront.

"We all need to have an emotional attachment to the war, to know the country's at war," he said. He said he feels strongly that the reality of death in Iraq seldom intrudes on our daily life - either because the government suppresses it or the media chooses not to show it.

Many of the attendees felt stories of the dead soldiers are riddled with cliches, full of predictable and anodyne comments about bravery, heroism, leadership. Sheeler often spends hours with families, perhaps at the end asking to see or touch a beloved object of a fallen soldier. This is a way of finding a humanizing touch amid the pomp of burial, such as the soldier who slept with a baby blanket so his unborn child would know his scent when he was away on duty.

My own talk was adapted from a recently published magazine article about the craft and history of writing advance obituaries.

By Adam Bernstein  |  May 14, 2008; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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"SPOW" sounds like a sound clip from the episode where Batman fought Salmon Ella.

Also, It's not the Toronto Globe and Mail. It's just The Globe and Mail, aka Canada's National Newspaper. Some of the marketing types are pretty antsy about anyone calling them Toronto anything, because every time the word "Toronto" shows up their circulation west of Winnipeg goes down a bit.

Posted by: Charlene | May 14, 2008 11:17 PM | Report abuse

OK, then: Toronto-based Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper and still one of the finest reads west of Winnipeg.

Posted by: Adam | May 15, 2008 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link to your article -- fascinating! I love the quotes at the open and close.

Posted by: Nell | May 24, 2008 6:58 PM | Report abuse

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