Obit writers: Deadly serious about their craft

Obit writers: Deadly serious about their craft

America is full of cons these days. There's ComicCon, SantaCon, CatCon, even balloon artists get together at BalloonCon. And then there's ObitCon, filled with a lively bunch of obituary writers, readers, and even a funeral director, who said, "We all have to deal with deadlines, and I hate to use that term and I'm very careful to never tell a family that I have to meet a deadline right after they've experienced a death."

These members of SPOW – the Society of Professional Obituary Writers – are deadly serious when it comes to their craft.

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Newspaper obituaries for singer David Bowie. CBS News

Adam Bernstein, obituary editor for the Washington Post, said, "The demand has never been higher for quality stories ready at a moment's notice. Obits matter. You all matter."

"You get to write about everything in humanity," he told correspondent Mo Rocca. "You're not just writing about business, you're not just writing about politics, you're not just writing about movies; you're doing it all."

It used to be that the obit desk was a graveyard, a dumping ground for reporters who'd come to the end of the line.  But now it's thriving, and the revenue from paid death notices is the lifeblood of struggling newspapers across the country. Longtime obituary writers Kay Powell, formerly of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and John Pope, of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, are fluent in the euphemisms used to eulogize the dead.

Pope said, "These would pop up in death notices: 'passed on,' 'joined God's heavenly choir,' or my favorite, 'the lights went out.'"

According ti Powell, "Lady friend" would mean 'whore, prostitute. "'Raconteur' is a boring storyteller."

"Raconteur is a boring storyteller?" asked Rocca. 

"In an obituary, yes!" said Pope. 

And how about "Raucous"? "Loud drunk," Pope said. 

ObitCon has no red carpet, but it does hand out awards: The Grimmys (not the Grammys), in the shape of a tombstone. This year, Tom Hawthorn from the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, won the Lifetime Achievement Grimmy. 

In his acceptance speech Hawthorn said, "I used to be embarrassed to write obits. I'm from that newsroom culture that it was for the drunks and the losers and the kids starting out. And then you realize, no, this is where the stories are. So, thank you, I'm deeply honored."

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Simon & Schuster

And Rocca was honored to be this year's special guest at ObitCon. he said, "When you read a well-written obituary, it is sort of like, I think, a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic. It's sort of the highs, the lows, and the sweep of it."

Which brings us to "Mobituaries," "Sunday Morning"'s original podcast series paying tribute to the people and things that never got the send-off they deserved. (It's also 

In our brand-new second season, Rocca tells the stories of a presidential brother so famous he had his own beer; and we say goodbye to a forgotten founding father with an original production number; plus, the story of the first Chinese American superstar, Anna May Wong, and the 1980s pop star whose hit song, "Gloria," brought glory to a 2019 sports team. 

You can download "Mobituaries with Mo Rocca" for free on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayiHeartRadioMegaphoneSpotifyStitcher or Tunein. New episodes will be available weekly. For RSS feed click here.

       
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Story produced by Young Kim.