By: Joe Strupp
This weekend’s fourth annual Great Obituary Writers’ Conference will take on added significance, according to organizers who say Sept. 11 caused editors and readers to take more interest in the quality and style of obits.
“It required thousands of obituaries to be written in one fell swoop,” said Carolyn Gilbert, president of the International Association of Obituarists, which runs the yearly conference. “The enormity of that number really focused on the obituary writer as a very significant person.”
Set for Friday and Saturday in Las Vegas, N.M., the conference proclaims 2002 as “The Year of the Obituary Writer” and promises attendees “the time of your life.” Topics will include the impact of Sept. 11 on obits, obit writing styles, unusual obits, and obituaries’ impact on history. Speakers include obituary editor Richard Pearson of The Washington Post, obituary writer Alana Baranick of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, obituaries editor Kay Powell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Goodbye magazine editor Steve Miller.
Gilbert, a public policy consultant and former English teacher, has never written obits professionally, but describes herself as an avid reader. She launched the conference four years ago “as a lark” to allow discussions on improving and promoting obits. It first began in 1999 with 20 attendees, all from Texas, but the annual event expects to attract about 35 guests from across the U.S. this year, plus keynote speaker Nigel Starck of the University of South Australia.
Along the way, Gilbert has also created ObitPage.com, which proclaims, “The obituary writer has emerged as an unassuming journalistic hero whose time arrived tragically in September 2001.” The site provides a resource for obit writers and readers to compare and contrast styles, while also putting some of the most interesting obits online.
The site’s choices for interesting obituaries range from the recently deceased Queen Mother of England to legendary funnyman Milton Berle. “Our faithful send them to us,” Gilbert said.