I saw an interesting brief in a newspaper industry bulletin the other day. A reporter from one of the South's largest newspapers won the top prize from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers Awards.
I blinked hard. First, I didn't know there was such a thing as "professional obituary writers." Second, I couldn't fathom that they had all gotten together and formed a society. I love the fact that as I grow older that life still surprises and amazes me.
See, in all my years in the newspaper business, I have yet to know anyone who wanted to write obits, much less aspire to the heights of obituary renown. My experience has always been that newsroom folks fight over who has to write them.
There's a lot of pressure that comes with being an obit writer. This I know firsthand. If you want to see someone mad in the most non-Christian-like way, then just mess up the final farewell of their loved one. Once at a newspaper where I worked, the obituary writer lost his job when he had the man who died preaching his own funeral. But that reporter went on to bigger things, winning Emmy awards in television news where he didn't have to write obituaries.
For a brief period in my college days, I filled in on the obit desk and was absolutely diligent in every detail since I had grown up hearing people complain about erroneous obits. In actuality, I was probably best at writing death notices, better at that than anything else I have written. After a couple of weeks, the town's funeral directors pleaded with the editor to leave me in that position.
"She's mighty good," they said.
My editor thought it was funny. I didn't. "No," I exclaimed. "You can't leave me here. I'm meant for bigger things. I'm meant to have bylines."
Now I see that there are few pieces of news more important than obituaries, and it's probably the most consistently read section of the paper. My mama didn't just read the obituaries, she studied them. Honest to goodness, she would spend two hours a day reading every line of every obituary.
One day Mama called me and I had someone working at my house.
"What's his name?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter because you don't know him."
"Well, I might. What's his name?"
Finally, I relented. She repeated the name a couple of times as though she was searching for its familiarity. "Oh I know. Someone in his family died last week."
"Oh, c'mon. You don't know that," I retorted.
"Yes, I do. That boy who's workin' at your house was one of the survivors. I read it in the obituary. I think it was his grandfather."
Not for one minute did I think that Mama really knew something like that about someone she had never heard of before. To prove my point, so I could triumphantly report back to her, I hung up, walked in the kitchen and asked, "Did your grandfather die last week?"
He turned and looked startled. "How'd you know that?"
This goes to prove that obituaries are being read diligently by people everywhere, even when they don't know the deceased.
But I swear I didn't know there was a society of them or that they gave awards for literary greatness in obituary writing. Had I known that, I might have stayed in the business. It would be quite a feat to have your own obituary to one day read, "She reached the pinnacle of her career when she was named the nation's top obituary writer in 2001 and then incredibly repeated the feat six more times."
By the way, just so you'll know, the top obituary award is officially called "Best Body Of Work."
I guess even obituary writers have a sense of humor.
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