Dead Lines

The Denver dailies change the way they handle obituaries -- for better and for worse.

"Writing obituaries is usually a beginning reporter's job," notes obit specialist Jim Sheeler. "I think that's usually why they're done so poorly. But obituaries can be stories that teach you a little bit more about life through death. And I don't really think it matters how old you are to learn those lessons."

Sheeler should know. He's only 33 but looks younger -- facts he prefers to downplay. "A lot of people probably think I'm this sixty-year-old guy who's all burnt out," he says, laughing. "They're surprised when they see me. But when they realize I'm there to get a real story with a beginning, middle and end to it and that I'm trying to learn everything I possibly can about this person, they really open up."

The willingness of just plain folks to share extremely personal memories during a time of sorrow helps explain why Sheeler's "A Colorado Life" is arguably the finest regularly scheduled feature in the Sunday Denver Post.

But although Sheeler's contributions, which he freelances to the Post, will continue to brighten the paper, other obituary-related matters are in flux. Since April 2, obits at the Post and the Rocky Mountain News have come with a charge. The move was reportedly made in part to guarantee that such items get into print within days of an individual's demise instead of weeks or even longer. However, Garrett Ray, a newspaper veteran and retired CSU journalism professor who's written extensively about how to improve obituaries, thinks that explanation has some holes in it.

"If they say they were behind, then they were behind," Ray allows. "But newspapers always make choices in terms of allocating the space and resources they have, and if they thought it was important enough, they could say, 'We'll provide two more pages every day for obits and produce more staff-written obits.' That means they'd have to give up two pages of something else, which isn't an easy choice. There are always tradeoffs -- but in this case, I think they made the wrong call."

At the same time, Ray praises the Post for assigning longtime staffer Claire Martin to write long-form obits on an almost-daily basis starting this week. Granted, other observers see the move as an attempt to blunt critics who think the latest obituary strategy could lead down a slippery slope; last month, the Philadelphia Daily News announced it had created a pay-obit section for pets. But Martin's eagerness to follow the Sheeler blueprint and celebrate the legacy of everyday Joes and Janes is promising.

"I'm interested in people whose obituaries might not be singled out for special mention because of high-profile accomplishments or the roles they play in society, like city council members or people on boards," she says. "I'll write about them, too, I'm sure. But the next day, I hope I'll be writing about someone from a tamale factory."

Obits in general have seldom gotten much respect in the journalism field, but this year is different. On April 8, the New York Times earned a richly warranted Pulitzer Prize in the public-service category for "A Nation Challenged," special sections about terrorism, war and unrest that were prompted by the attacks on September 11. But even as the Pulitzer judges praised the manner in which the Times "coherently and comprehensively covered the tragic events...and tracked the developing story, locally and globally," they made special mention of victim profiles that continue to appear under the banner "Portraits of Grief." These items are usually just a few inches long, but their authors consistently and artfully manage to capture the qualities of those lost in the World Trade Center. The April 7 sketches of casualties such as a Jamaican man with twelve godchildren who was labeled a "dispenser of joy" and a 23-year-old born on the Fourth of July are typical: All these months later, they're still capable of inducing bittersweet tears.

According to Dallas, Texas-based obit expert Carolyn Gilbert, the approach taken to "Profiles of Grief" was a new one for the Times. "For years, they almost rejected the idea that ordinary people should be recognized at this level of obituary," she says. "But they reversed their philosophy in this case, and the result was staggering. These people weren't eighty-year-olds who'd reached the end of their lives and had fourteen grandchildren; many of them were young people in the prime of their careers with growing families. That was why it was such a shock to the system, and I think it jolted the average reader into realizing the value of the obituary."

Gilbert needed no such nudge. A former schoolteacher who went on to become an analyst and consultant in the areas of public policy and communications, she's been a closet obituary reader since her youth; forty years ago, when she left her tiny hometown of Electra, Texas, to attend Baylor University in Waco, she says, "I kept my subscriptions to the community papers from around Electra -- to keep up with the dying, I suppose."

More recently, Gilbert decided that obituary writers deserved more attention, and she set out to rectify the situation. Hence the creation of a Web site,, which provides "a forum for research and analysis of obituary writing" and identifies and maintains "a network of writers, historians, researchers, and others who follow the lure of the obituary." She has also founded an annual obituary-writing convention. Gilbert concedes that when she first started contacting obit scribes for the inaugural event, which was held in Archer City, Texas, "people were amazed, because the lowly obituary writer typically doesn't get this kind of recognition. Joe Simnacher, who's the dean of obituary writers for the Dallas Morning News, called up and asked, 'This isn't a chili cookoff, is it?' And I said, 'No, it's real. I promise.'"

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