Deaths Noticed

Obituaries, long a newspaper art form, are branching out in cyberspace and soon, a magazine

March 27, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

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.

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