How funny is death? SPOW Conference Part Two

Or is that really the question I want to ask?

I am forever niggled by something having to do with writing obituaries and it has, partly, to do with the reactions from womenfolk and menfolk, children folk too (although less so) who inappropriately, in my opinion, respond when I tell them what I do.

They snicker; I niggle. We stumble past or I challenge them. Depends, it always depends on what side of the bed I (after all, I still live to rise) get out of on that particular morning.

What the hell am I saying?

Stumble indeed.

People, I am discovering, joke about death–often employing ragged clichés or exhausted platitudes. Nothing that lends comfort. They say: “Hope you’re not writing mine!” or “Wow, how creepy can that be?”

I roll my eyes, sometimes. At other times I verbally challenge them while wanting to smack them around a little.

We are called “the dead heads”; the award for excellent obituary writing is referred to as a “the grimster.”

So we held the Society of Professional Obituary Writers’ 2013 conference here in Toronto a couple months back. Naturally, I posted it on Facebook, hoping to marry Facebook friends with obituary-writing pals, and just to blow my horn about the hard work done to get this thing happening.

What happened was a barrage of gallows humour…and I looked like a poor-sport-sour-puss pooh-poohing their fun & games.

Here is some of the one-liner Facebook dead jokes:

Guess you and you buddies will be having a few stiff ones.

Or knocking back a few cold ones.

They can do that in the departure lounge, I’d wager.

What’s this conference called? Interment camp?

 Love to see the minutes to that. They must be famous last words.

And, when I intervened in my sour, school-marmish way I got this:

That’s true Noreen, You have to dig pretty deep to find a good dead joke.

Okay, okay. I admit it, they are pretty funny, but it’s not so much the joking about death that irks me–that I understand, it’s nerves and all, a relief of sorts–it’s the way in which these jokes demean my craft. It’s insulting, that’s what it is, and I will continue to react critically.

I work damned hard on these pieces and prefer to view them as tiny historical narratives,  thoughtful reflections on an individual’s life, rich in anecdotal detail and memorable,  poignant moments.

Like the one I wrote that’s in today’s paper, about a German foot soldier who fell in love with a Polish woman while tramping through mud toward Moscow.

He lost her to the Nazis, who transported her to work as a maid somewhere in the Fatherland, and he (my subject) took months to track her down and escape with her to Austria, where they married in 1946.

That isn’t funny.

Enough said about all this humour or not-humour in death for now. I will continue in the next instalment, at which time I will also link you to a CNN article from whence I borrowed the illustration above. And I will “discuss” this article blog-style.

The article was written by Anne O’Neill, one of my obit writing colleagues and a conference attendee. Stay tuned and thanks for allowing me my pesky little opinions that go against the grain. And remember: I, too, have a sense of humour!

p.s. That’s me, in the drawing, toasting over the corpse with a glass of fine wine.


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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4 Responses to How funny is death? SPOW Conference Part Two

  1. Well heck! Obits are about life, not death! Death is only part of it because of the timing! However, I’d love to see more obituaries written while people are still alive to learn how highly thought of they are by their friends and acquaintances. And how they are seen by others, which can be quite an interesting eye-opener for oneself.

  2. Ryan Lee says:

    Super interesting blog. I’ll be back.

  3. ronwatson says:

    Nice post. I have collected some of rare photos about women’s life during world war 2. See, how america government used to motivate their women to join the war with them. Check out the video and much more information about how women in america contributed their part during world war 2. I invite you to visit my blog at

  4. Deb says:

    The first thought that came to me after reading your rant was, hmmm, she doesn’t actually write about death at all, so what’s all the fuss about? When I think about your obits, I see them as darn good life-stories of people who lived interesting lives! Historians don’t seem to have to deal with the shadow of death hanging over their writing, so why should an obit writer? What amazes me is how you are so able to fit the essence of a whole life into four columns! (Is it 4? I don’t have one in front of me at the moment to check, but you know what I mean!)
    If you want to show the world what morbid means you could try describing the unpleasant details of a subjects’ degeneration and death processes. You know, the shutdown of the various body systems… or what a sudden fatal event really entailed, just to see what kind of a reaction you would get from the comics then!

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