Most people might view Kelly, who lived with his parents and never married or finished college, as a man of meager accomplishments. Not Nicholson.
"A special person? Society today does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side. But the son of U.S. District Court Judge James McGirr Kelly became exceptional by virtue of his plain and honest choices and the character which drove them. ... He had an apartment for a while, but decided to move back with his parents. For no other reason than because he loved them and they loved him."
You just had to be interesting
Nicholson's Runyonesque character studies brought in the writing awards and secured him a modicum of fame as the godfather of the Joe Sixpack obit. You no longer needed to be a big shot to get a proper, literary sendoff. You just had to be interesting, and Nicholson found something interesting about nearly everybody.
He didn't attend this year's conference in Toronto, but he has been a regular in the past -- and he is revered by the others. Andrew Meacham, who writes about dearly departed Floridians for the Tampa Bay Times, considers Nicholson his mentor.
I reached out to The Great One by e-mail, and he was happy to talk obits and why people are fascinated by them. Most people get three opportunities to make the local news, he said: Birth, marriage and death.
Hatch, match and dispatch.
"Obits bring the deceased out onto the public stage, many for the first and only time, to give them a grand goodbye and in effect, decree to all the readers that this was a life well lived," he explained. "It is a public validation."
At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kay Powell became the South's Jim Nicholson, chronicling the life and times of a Klansman-turned-civil-rights-activist, a plumbing contractor who happened to be chief magistrate of a group of Gypsies and the inglorious demise of a celestial body:
"Pluto the Planet, 76, died Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, when it was killed by the International Astronomical Union --- downgraded to a lowly 'dwarf planet.' No memorial service is planned, because it's been several years since astronomers considered Pluto a real planet."
Powell is a natural-born storyteller, in the Southern tradition. She has an eye for characters and for the telling one-liner, which she delivers with a down-home accent and throaty chuckle. She is proud of winning the confidence of the black-owned funeral homes in Georgia, which wasn't easy but came in handy when the rappers started warring with each other. She retired four years ago.
Some professionals avoid writing obits about family members and people they know. But Powell embraced writing her mama's obit, using a hybrid of neutral editorial voice and family-style death notice writing to weave in telling details about a Southern lady who enjoyed church meetings and entertaining.
Juanita Powell took in friends, relatives and strays alike: "In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company," her daughter wrote.
And there was no gilding the lily: "I don't know that it's a wart," Powell said, "but I did include Mama's poker-playing in her obit. The preacher at her funeral said he had been a Methodist preacher for 43 years and never knew what the United Methodist Women do at their meetings. After reading my obit for Mama, he said he now knows: They are playing poker."
Read an obit, learn the lay of the land
Reading obits and paid death notices is a way to take a region's pulse: In the South, it doesn't take long to notice how many people go "home" to be with Jesus. In the Northeast, the ritual of one's demise is much less flowery. People die, there's a viewing, alcoholic drinks are consumed and then they are buried, after which more adult beverages are served.
Fred Clark had his ashes fired from a cannon into Virginia's Great Wicomico River. In lieu of flowers, his obit said, he wanted mourners to "get rip-roaring drunk at home with someone you love."
In California, they are fond of celebrating lives, cremating remains and scattering them in the ocean with the help of the Neptune Society. For those who don't opt for cremation, it is not uncommon to see mourners pour a cold beer or a bottle of cognac over a grave -- a tribute borrowed from the homeboy gang culture.
Many obit writers look to London and The Daily Telegraph's obits desk, launched in 1986, for inspiration. The Telegraph is legendary for its deliciously droll send-offs. Consider: "Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 79, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things -- a whore and a spy -- 'and there were attempts to make me both,' she once wrote."
Telegraph Obituary Editor Hugh Massingberd, often referred to as "Massivesnob," delighted in details -- the more scurrilous the better. Pressed by his superiors to follow the American style of reporting the cause of death, Massingberd responded with the obituary of a man who died when his penile implant ruptured.