The original seemed to rhapsodize about Yvonne Brill's domestic skills at the expense of her career as, well, a rocket scientist: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."
Howls of protest took the beef stronganoff off the menu as the obit was changed to read: "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. "The world's best mom," her son Matthew said."
The controversy was a big topic of discussion at the conference. Was it sexist to mention her beef stroganoff before the professional barriers she broke? And was that sexism deliberate?
The obit writers believe it was a misguided attempt at a literary twist. Tom Hawthorn and Bryan Marquard, who both were honored with "Grimmies," the group's equivalent of an Oscar, wondered if the outcry would have been as pitched if a woman's byline, say Margalit Fox's, topped the obit.
The women, who vastly outnumbered the men at the conference, insisted that it would.
Obituary as essay
And then there was Shelagh Gordon, a 55-year-old woman who was the subject of a lengthy, 5,000-word obituary in the Toronto Star last year. It was meant as an experiment in narrative journalism, as a way to examine an ordinary life in search of the extraordinary.
"I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral," began columnist Catherine Porter, the lead writer in an ambitious team effort involving 20 staffers. "She was soap-and-water beautiful, vital, unassuming and funny without trying to be. I could feel her spirit tripping over a purse in the funeral hall and then laughing from the floor."
Shelagh had never married. She grew up in a large, loud family; nobody noticed until she was 8 that she was deaf in one ear. As an adult, she indulged herself each afternoon in an hourlong bath, reading novels and eating orange slices. She was probably depressed, Porter learned. But she was unfailing kind, as Porter described it, "freshly-in-love thoughtful." And that kindness touched a lot of people.
"She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she'd have been considered a spinster -- no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews and her "life partner" -- a gay man -- who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her wearing matching reading glasses."
Porter, who spoke at the conference, said telling Shelagh's story changed her. She recalled going through Shelagh's closet, trying on her shoes to better understand her. It was difficult it to understand how someone so outwardly loving and generous with family and friends also could keep herself closed off, failing to find a spouse or make a mark in the working world.
Whither the obituary writer?
The trade of writing obits is in transition. More than half of the obit writers at the conference have taken buyouts, retired or been pushed out of newsrooms across the United States and Canada. In the wake of such carnage, last year's conference was canceled altogether.
People who write obits see their work as noble rather than morbid. After all, the business part of an obit -- the death -- is usually dealt with quickly, with a single line. So-and-so died unexpectedly at home at the age of 108, for example. And then it's on to the good stuff, the details of ordinary life.
Over the years, the great American novel has, at various times, been declared dead. So have newspapers -- and reading altogether. And yet, here you are, right now, at this place near the end of a written story about writing and dead people. So what does that say? Are obits, the nonfiction poetry of the dead, the key to keeping the written word alive?
The simple fact is people love reading, sharing and commenting on obits. Surveys, including those by Northwestern University's Readership Institute, quantify the phenomenon, as do Harry Stamps, Toni Larroux and the other obits that recently have gone viral online. And where there's an audience, there's opportunity, says the Blogger of Death.
Professional obit writers will always be in demand, Jade Walker believes, "because people keep on dying."
Indeed, some 540 people died around the world while you were reading this story.