DEATHS NOTICED

The Baltimore Sun

In the film Venus, a vain septuagenarian actor played by Peter O'Toole makes a daily ritual of reading the obituaries in the morning paper, looking for his fallen fellow thespians and deducing their relative importance in life by how much space they were given in death.

Such musings are increasingly common in the real world, where obituaries have become an obsession to people who revel in the tales of others' histories, of lives both well led and wasted.

Driven largely by the Internet, interest in obituaries is booming, with a slew of Web sites and blogs dedicated to the craft, as well as a rise in the emerging field of commissioned obits, in both written and video form, made to order by people who want a say over how their legacy is described.

At least five books about obituaries and obituary writers have been published recently, adding to the lore of mortality.

"What's different now is people reading obituaries of people they've never heard of and loving it," said Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (HarperCollins, 2006). "Because of the Internet, people can e-mail obits to each other, and they can gather in these creepy little news groups and read them from around the world."

Such is the interest in the field that Orchard Films, a New York company that produced the documentaries In the Company of Women and Miss America, is working on a film about the cultural role of obituaries, tentatively titled The Last Word, and planned to shoot a public reading of Johnson's book last night at the Strand Book Store in Manhattan.

Johnson, who wrote about the passings of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales for Life magazine, said that in the best obituaries, "the death happens in a phrase or a sentence -- the rest of it is the story of a life."

And there are more such stories to be told. According to U.S. Census projections, there will be just over 40 million Americans age 65 or older by 2010, leading, inevitably, to a greater focus on the journey to the hereafter.

"There's more openness now about end-of-life issues," said Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, editor of obitpage.com and an organizer of the annual Great Obituary Writers' National Conference, to be held in June in Alfred, N.Y. "People no longer hide from death. It's something you can talk about."

To capitalize on that interest, a husband-and-wife team from Princeton, N.J., plan later this year to launch a magazine, Obit, dedicated to stories of the dead, gone and, with luck, fascinating.

The inspiration for the magazine came to Bob Hillier in 2004 as he was flying back east from a business trip to Dallas. Near him on the plane was a woman who was reading an obituary in People magazine of actor Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo on television for more than 30 years.

"She started to cry," Hillier said recently, impressed still with the obituary's impact on the woman. "I realized that when someone who you've connected to dies, a little bit of you dies."

When Hillier got home to his wife, Barbara, he had something to tell her. "I said, 'I have this wild idea that we should start a magazine called Obit,'" he recalled. Initially, his wife did not swoon over the proposal.

"I'm not one of those people who religiously reads the obits," she said. "I've come to appreciate them now that we're starting this magazine. I liked the idea that it's taboo and not necessarily a welcome subject."

The Hilliers' chief occupation is architecture, but five years ago they bought Town Topics, a 60-year-old weekly in Princeton with a circulation of about 14,000. With Obit, whose subtitle is Revealing Lives, they hope for a national audience.

"You want to tell a story that resonates with people's lives, something that touched someone else's life," Barbara Hillier said. The magazine's subjects "don't necessarily have to be famous," she added, "but interesting people whose accomplishments are every bit as worthy."

They don't even have to be people.

While a template for Obit's first issue includes a freelance profile of the modernist architect Ralph Rapson -- who, at 92, is still very much with us -- the story focuses not so much on Rapson himself as on the demolition in December of one of his most acclaimed creations, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, "one of the country's first and most notable regional venues," suddenly "exposed and half-gone, its guts deposited into a growing pile of industrial rubble."

The Guthrie, the story says, "did not die an easy death." A second piece describes the "iconoclastic personality" of "the late, great Hunter S. Thompson," the wildly eccentric author and reporter who shot himself two years ago at his home near Aspen, Colo.

"Like Keith Richards, his ability to cling to life seemed implausible, against all odds," the story says. "So perhaps it wasn't all that unexpected when the journalist who broke all the rules, who allegedly stole a pair of antlers hanging outside Hemingway's house, died."

A photo shows Thompson in a floppy hat and sunglasses sitting in the driver's seat of his convertible, his right hand aloft, holding a gun.

The Hilliers and their editor, Krishna Andavolu, said they have taken cues from established obituary writers like Jim Sheeler, a reporter with Denver's Rocky Mountain News who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his report "Final Salute," which looked at how U.S. Marines honor comrades who have died in battle. Sheeler also co-wrote, with fellow obit writers Alana Baranick and Stephen Miller, Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers (Marion Street Press, 2006).

Andavolu said Sheeler "never lost the humanity or the empathy that a good obit writer has." Indeed, he went on, the "genre of obit writing no longer signals dreary, morbid writing."

"There's a strain of obit writers in England who write really wonderfully," Andavolu said, referring to reporters at The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, among others, who have raised the craft to an art. Duly inspired, he said, "What we're trying to do is take a stance on what a person's life meant."

Obit magazine, Barbara Hillier said, is also planning stories on the "challenges of the American funeral industry," the evolving expectations of what constitutes a funeral, and "environmentally friendly burial grounds" that use only wooden coffins -- or no coffins at all -- and prohibit chemicals like embalming fluids.

The obituaries themselves, of course, will be the prime attraction, which pleases reporters like Marianne Costantinou, who was the San Francisco Chronicle's chief obit writer -- a position for which she volunteered -- until she left the paper last year after taking a buyout. Costantinou, some of whose obits have been posted on the Web as stellar examples of the craft, prefers not to write about the famous or newsworthy.

"I would look through the classified ads, the deaths column, to find one that had some little tidbit that caught your fancy and made you smile, like the lady who watered plants in San Francisco office towers," she said. "I would try to make them as personable as possible, because this was their last hurrah -- and very often their first."

For the famous, of course, obituaries are a given, usually written well in advance of their passings. The New York Times, where several writers work on obits full time, has taken the concept a step further and begun producing video obituaries in which the subjects are interviewed about their own lives.

The series, called "The Last Word," debuted Jan. 18, just hours after the death of Art Buchwald, the garrulous newspaper columnist. Buchwald, 81, who suffered from kidney disease but had doggedly and happily fended off death for months, was taped last summer at his home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

His opening line, delivered with a big smile, was, "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Obit Web sites

http:--groups.google.com/group/alt.obituaries/topics? hl=en "Notices of dead folks" is the straight-to-the-point description of a news group, alt.obituaries, that aggregates more than 100,000 obits.

legacy.com/obituaries.asp The site links to the obituary sites of more than 350 newspapers. It includes suggestions on how to place a newspaper obit and create tributes, as well as listings for flower shops and funeral homes.

obitpage.com The site of Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, editor of obitpage.com and a host of the Great Obituary Writers' National Conference, includes a page called Great Obits, with hundreds of poignant examples of the craft.

marilynjohnson.net Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, wrote obituaries for Katharine Hepburn, Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Johnny Cash and Marlon Brando for Life and other magazines.

deathbeat.com Alana Baranick, obituary writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and winner of the 2005 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for obituary writing, is a co-author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers.

obituarywriters.com Larken Bradley, obituary writer for The Point Reyes Light in Marin County, Calif., is also an obit writer for hire. Her service, Obituaries Professionally Written, provides obituaries for people who want their final story written before death or for relatives in need of death announcements or obituaries.

[Nick Madigan]

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