Their loved one isn't dead yet but sure seems to be nearly departed. So you could almost hear the organ and smell the lilies as the obit writers gathered and paid their respects to a dying art.
They drew comfort from one another as only people who write about the dead for a living can -- sharing cocktails and gallows humor on a Friday night in June, down in the rathskeller of an historic mansion. A band called Canuckistan played hippie-era classics by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band (RIP, Levon Helm, 1940-2012.)
As the writers nibbled and quaffed, they commiserated about the challenges of staying employed and swapped stories about their favorite obits: the bowlegged ballerina; the bra fitter; the nature photographer who arrived on this Earth a he and departed a she.
If it weren't for the obit writers, the world might not know about those people.
Celebrities, heads of state and captains of industry will always get their monuments and grand goodbyes. But the little people, if they're lucky, get a tidy 1,000-word sendoff from a skilled obit writer.
It helps if that writer comes with an appreciation for the humanity in a death notice about a woman survived by "her son who loved and cared for her," a daughter who "betrayed her trust" and another son who "broke her heart." It also helps if the writer has an ear for what the neighbors have to say about a regular guy who was "a good pool player, had an eye for women and never broke his word."
The passing of an era
It used to be that the writer worked for a newspaper, but not so much anymore. The newspaper business has been writing its own obituary for more than a decade. Memorial websites and do-it-yourself obit kits are springing up to take its place. They're even talking about putting bar codes on tombstones that can be scanned onto smartphones to conjure up video farewell messages from the deceased.
Words such as dusty, musty and fusty come to mind when you think about obituary writers, if you think about them at all. But the writers who attended this conference were an eclectic bunch. They call themselves "Deadheads," but they are not to be confused with the tie-dyed, patchouli-scented followers of the band Grateful Dead.
Their ranks include several published authors; one of the original investors of the board game Trivial Pursuit; and the Blogger of Death, who also works the overnight shift at The Huffington Post. Also among them were award-winning obituary writers from big city newspapers in Chicago, Toronto and Boston.
Only one person dressed in black -- and that was a top garnished with silvery glitter, suitable for the dance floor. It was worn by Maureen O'Donnell, who grew up in the same neighborhood as serial killer John Wayne Gacy and covered the case of another infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. It seemed a natural transition from the crime beat to the death beat.
O'Donnell is known for the poignancy of her obits for the Chicago Sun-Times. Among her favorites are the inseparable couple, married 62 years, who died just hours apart. And then there's the outdoorsman who survived two attacks by grizzly bears but died peacefully in his own bed.
The new media obit queen, Jade Walker, writes The Blog of Death and is so fascinated by the end-of-life rituals that she exchanged her wedding vows in a cemetery, not far from the grave of the poet Robert Frost.
The rise of the obituary
The literary tradition wasn't always a fixture on the obit page. For years, obits were considered low-end real estate, a corner of the paper the old folks checked to see whom they'd outlasted. The obit desk was where newsrooms broke in the newbies and put the burnouts out to pasture.
Certainly that's what they thought they were doing with Jim Nicholson, an investigative reporter from Philadelphia who got on the wrong side of his publisher by looking into an in-house murder with the same zeal he pursued mobsters and biker gangs. Nicholson was banished to Siberia -- the New Jersey suburbs -- and even worked out of his car for a while.
In 1982, the editors at The Philadelphia Daily News asked Nicholson if he'd like to launch an obits page. He jumped at the chance.
It wasn't a high-profile assignment, not yet, but it was his ticket out of exile. The first thing he did was strip away the piety and saccharine. He wasn't interested in polishing halos. Instead, he used his finely honed investigative skills to dig out the details he needed to portray the dearly departed as they truly were, warts and all.
Consider Christopher J. Kelly. The son of a federal judge was shot to death at a tavern in the city's Overbrook neighborhood. Nicholson later learned that the judge kept a copy of the obit in his desk drawer for years, often taking it out to read during court breaks.
"Every family of any size has one: the uncrowned prince or princess who does not seek special stature but achieves it nevertheless," Nicholson wrote. "It is not always the oldest, nor the best-looking nor the most successful. Chris Kelly was the favorite uncle, the trusted brother, the loyal son. He would have shunned such descriptions."
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.