Obituary Writers Conference
Juen 2, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: This weekend nearly 30 journalists are converging on Las Vegas, New Mexico for the Third Great Obituary Writers' Conference. The event is organized by Carolyn Gilbert [sp?], an obit consultant from Dallas, and she joins us now. Carolyn, welcome to OTM.
CAROLYN GILBERT: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: This is your third annual conference?
CAROLYN GILBERT: It is the Third Great Obituary Writers' Conference.
BOB GARFIELD: Just curious. What will you be discussing this year that you didn't cover in the other two?
CAROLYN GILBERT: [LAUGHS] Well you have to understand that every day you have a new chapter of obituaries, not only in the United States; in the world!
BOB GARFIELD:The one ongoing issue of obituary writing that I can think of: what to do to memorialize the life of a high-achieving scoundrel. [LAUGHTER] When Dan Rostenkowski dies some day, how high up do you put the prison term?
CAROLYN GILBERT: [LAUGHS] Good, good point. You don't want to leave it out, because that as far as history is concerned is not fair. It's not a fair story. You don't want to make too much of it, but then again it is judgmental on the part of the, of the writer as to where it actually fits in the scheme of things. But-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD:Because you know that some percentage of your readers will be going oh, for crying out loud - the man is dead. Just leave him alone.
CAROLYN GILBERT: Right! Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Why do people read the obituaries? I mean apart from the overriding news value?
CAROLYN GILBERT: Well I guess there is a curiosity factor, and it's kind of a marker of your own life to read the obituaries and see the, the procession of those who, who are dying and who are memorialized in the obituaries!
BOB GARFIELD: And I guess in a way it's life-affirming, because if you're reading the obituaries, why you're not the guest of honor.
CAROLYN GILBERT: That's right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:Now this may be sensitive to some of your membership but-- obituary writing is traditionally a starting point in journalism or a dumping ground for people deemed to be no longer of great service to the rest of the, the news pages. Is there a stigma attached to obituary-writing?
CAROLYN GILBERT: The, the subject is one of continuing concern every time we get these people together, because very often the, the young writer comes in; is assigned to the obit desk and thinks it is a punishment; or in retirement someone is assigned to the obit desk. We really firmly believe that the obituary writer should be the best writer on the staff.
BOB GARFIELD:There is a sort of a death vigil file at a lot of news organizations. The obituary for John Paul II and Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan are almost certainly written at most newspapers in the United States, and that has a kind of dead pool quality to it where you have to, you know, you're just waiting for someone finally to succumb. Do the members of this conference have a kind of dead pool of their own?
CAROLYN GILBERT: I, I think every writer does have in his head the advancer file as it's called, and you know it's not only the rich and famous that you're waiting to die. If you know the people in your community who are going to be looked at in historical terms that you really need to have a wonderful obituary ready.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean you call the person and say listen--[LAUGHS]
CAROLYN GILBERT: We know you're going to die -- no. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: I mean that must be an awkward telephone call.
CAROLYN GILBERT:[LAUGHS] No, you know, it's more like - and I'm sure every writer has his own technique for approaching that, but-- probably the most popular way is to assure the person that you really want an in depth interview so that whenever the time comes--
BOB GARFIELD: Kind of like, you know, having that fantasy of going to your own funeral!
CAROLYN GILBERT: That's right! That's right. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: That's-- that's actually - can be quite flattering.
CAROLYN GILBERT: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: If the presumption weren't that you're about to die!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. Yeah, you're going to be careful how you phrase these things. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well thank you very much, Carolyn. It's been a great pleasure.
CAROLYN GILBERT: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Carolyn Gilbert is organizing the Third Great Obituary Conference in Las Vegas, New Mexico.