Lives Well Led and Wasted

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

In the film Venus, a vain, elderly actor played by Peter O'Toole reads the obituaries every day, looking for his fellow thespians and deducing their relative importance in life by how much space they were given in death.

Ultimately, his two closest friends read his. "Beautiful," they say, impressed at the obit's glowing treatment and the large, handsome portrait of the actor as a young man.

In the real world, obituaries have become obsessions to people who revel in the tales of lives both well led and thrown away.

Interest in obituaries is booming, with a slew of Web sites and blogs dedicated to the craft. And there's the emerging field of commissioned obits, in both written and video form, made to order by people who want a say over their legacy.

At least five books about obituaries and obit writers have been published recently.

"What's different now is people reading obituaries of people they've never heard of, and loving it," says Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, published last year.

Orchard Films, which produced the documentary In the Company of Women, is working on a film about the cultural role of obituaries, tentatively titled The Last Word. They were shooting last night at a public reading of Johnson's book at the Strand Book Store in New York.

In the best obituaries, Johnson says, "The death happens in a phrase or a sentence. The rest of it is the story of a life."

Johnson wrote about the passings of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales, for Life magazine, which, incidentally, announced its own death only yesterday.

According to the U.S. Census, there will be just over 40 million Americans age 65 or older by 2010, which will probably lead to an even greater focus on the journey to the hereafter.

To capitalize on that, a team from Princeton, N.J., plans this year to launch a magazine called Obit, dedicated to stories of the dead, gone and, with luck, fascinating.

The inspiration for the magazine came to Bob Hillier in 2004 as he sat in an airplane. Near him was a woman who was reading an obit in People magazine of actor Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo on television for more than 30 years.

"She started to cry," Hillier said when I spoke with him the other day. Hillier got home to his wife, Barbara, and said, "I have this wild idea that we should start a magazine called Obit."

In addition to the obits, the magazine also plans to run stories on the "challenges of the American funeral industry," the evolving expectations of what constitutes a funeral, and "environmentally friendly burial grounds."

Marianne Costantinou, who was the San Francisco Chronicle's chief obit writer until she left the paper last year, prefers not to write about the famous or newsworthy.

She looks through death notices in classified ads to find those "that had some little tidbit that caught your fancy and made you smile," she says, "like the lady who watered plants in San Francisco office towers."

"I would try to make them as personable as possible," she says, "because this was their last hurrah, and very often their first."

For the famous, of course, obituaries are a given. The New York Times, where several writers work on obits full time, has begun producing video obituaries in which the subjects are interviewed about their own lives.

The series debuted on January 18, hours after the death of Art Buchwald, the 81-year-old newspaper columnist. Buchwald had been taped last summer at his home on Martha's Vineyard.

His opening line, delivered with a big smile, was, "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan