The Obit Lady

Host Liane Hansen speaks with Carolyn Gilbert, a.k.a., 'The Obit Lady.' Gilbert founded the International Association of Obituarists.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The story from China made the front sections of many U.S. newspapers. Obituary columns are most often found on the back pages - unless the deceased is very famous - and most of those columns are written by professionals.

Carolyn Gilbert writes and edits obituaries and is the founder of the International Association Of Obituarists. The 9th Annual Great Obituary Writers international conference wrapped up yesterday in the village of Alfred, New York. Carolyn Gilbert was the host of the event and she's on the phone.

Welcome to the program, Carolyn.

Ms. CAROLYN GILBERT (Founder, International Association of Obituarists): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: We have this at the record straight; you're not from New York State, right?

Ms. GILBERT: I'm from Texas. You probably figured that out.

HANSEN: Yes. Yes. You don't have a New York accent there. Where are you from?

Ms. GILBERT: I'm from the Dallas area.

HANSEN: Who read the obituaries?

Ms. GILBERT: Everybody.

HANSEN: Really?

Ms. GILBERT: Everybody. You know, the old joke - I do get up and read the obituaries every morning and if my name isn't there, I'd go on to work. But honestly, everybody reads the obituaries. There's the curiosity investigative nature of people who just like to read even about people they don't know. They do like to read the obituary.

HANSEN: Was there a personal reason that you got into writing obituaries?

Ms. GILBERT: Well, yes. Probably the first one that I wrote was for my own daughter who died suddenly at age 15. You know, most people look at a young person and think, well, what could you possibly put in a young person's obituary?

Well, I knew that child and I knew her personality of course and I knew her goals and I knew her good points and her bad points. So, it was very natural for me to write her obituary and I didn't want a stranger writing it. But I also came to understand the art of the obituary. It's not just writing birth date, death date and survivors. It's really the story of a life. And at newspapers, sometimes that position is considered entry level, in other circles where it's better understood; it's the best writer on the staff who is the obituaries editor. That is the most wonderful thing because that person needs enough life experience to understand death itself, but then also to understand how to even interview a grieving family.

HANSEN: How do you interview a grieving family?

Ms. GILBERT: Well, we have a member who probably is the best right now in any writing circles. His name is Jim Sheeler. And he asked them their fondest memories. You know, he just has them reminisce. It's kind of a memoir approach. One of the reporters yesterday said what do you do when - if a family member just breaks down and starts crying, what do you do? He said you don't do anything. You just rest and you let them break the silence. And then they'd get back on track and continue, you know, talking about the things that would be included in this life story.

HANSEN: Do you think it's appropriate to have humor in an obituary column?

Ms. GILBERT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean humor is a part of your life and so, you know, it goes without saying that it should transcend and be in the obituary.

HANSEN: What do you think is going to be in your obituary?

Ms. GILBERT: Well, I have been told that it could say I am the person who puts the bitch in obituary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GILBERT: I don't think so. I've also been told - and this is from the British obits editor for the Daily Telegraph, a young man named Andrew Mckie. He said, yeah, I figured out why you started this organization. And I said okay, why do you think I did it? He said because when you die, your obituary is going to be in every paper in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You better watch out what you do for the rest of your life.

Ms. GILBERT: That's right.

HANSEN: Okay.

Ms. GILBERT: It's going to be in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Carolyn Gilbert is the founder of the International Association of Obituarists. She lives in Electra, Texas. And her Web site is obitpage.com. We reached her in Alfred, New York, where the Great Obituary Writers National Conference has just ended. Thank you for your time.

Ms. GILBERT: Thank you.

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