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Reading Obituaries

Me…now I love trivia! Never challenge a librarian — never mind a reference librarian– to a game of Trivia Pursuit. Mind you I must admit I have lost at this game but only because I have bad luck landing on the pies.

I have discovered a new set of books on a particular subject that most people would shun: obituaries and last words. There are even conferences for obituary writers and collectors of obituaries, most notably the “Great Obituary Writers International Conference.” Without these books how would I have discovered that two wonderful voices from Pooh; Paul Winchell, (the voice of Tigger) died a day apart from John Fielder (the voice of Piglet). Or that presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th , 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence.

In obituaries you can find out who was the genius behind sea-monkeys (Harold von Brauhut) or about Opal Petty. She spent decades in a mental hospital because her Baptist parents did not want her to go out dancing. A church exorcism didn’t work so the family committed her, even though her friends and neighbours didn’t think there was anything wrong with Opal.

Some of the best obituaries are of ordinary joes. My favorite is: “Described fondly as demanding, disorganized, unpunctual and “dotty”….was at the same time intelligent , loving, witty, supportive and loyal and obsessed with buying bags, jewelry and shoes”. Or “Agate, population 70, is one of those towns that people describe as “blink and you’ll miss it”. Lois A. Engel loved living in the blink.” Can you just picture these women? To learn more random trivia from obituaries, try these books:

The Dead Beat: lost souls, lucky stiffs and the perverse pleasure of obituaries by Marilyn Johnson

“A journalist who’s written obituaries of Princess Di and Johnny Cash, Johnson counts herself among the obit obsessed, one who subsists on the “tiny pieces of cultural flotsam to profound illuminations of history” gathered from obits from around the world, which she reads online daily-sometimes for hours. Her quirky, accessible book starts at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference, where she meets others like herself… Johnson handles her offbeat topic with an appropriate level of humor, while still respecting the gravity of mortality-traits she admires in the best obit writers, who have “empathy and detachment; sensitivity and bluntness.” – Publisher’s Weekly

52 McGs: the best obituaries from legendary New York Times writers Robert McG Thomas Jr. Edited by Chris Calhoun

“A “lover of the farfetched and the overlooked,” as novelist Mallon puts it in his appreciative introduction, the late New York Times reporter Robert McG. Thomas Jr. (1939-2000) developed a loyal following for quirky, witty obituaries that illuminated the lives of people not automatically destined for “the Newspaper of Record.” This highly browsable collection of 52 obits shows Thomas at his deadline best.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Last Laughs: funny tombstone quotes and famous last words by Kathleen Miller

“Who really gets the last word? The one who writes your epitaph, that’s who-and to make matters worse, most of the time it’s written in stone.” ~ publisher

The Final Word: The book of Canadian epitaphs by Nancy Millar

“From Canada’s foremost graveyard historian comes the first-ever collection of Canadian epitaphs.Strange as it is to say, graveyards are historical documents. And they have a lot to say about who we were – and who we are.From the strange and humorous to the majestic and moving, from the baldly factual (“Horses ran away”) to the possibly fantastical (“Milicent Milroy, A. M. M. M. / Wife of Edward VIII / Duke of Windsor / 1894-1972″), from the wildly famous to the completely anonymous, The Final Word chronicles the little-travelled terrain of Canadian grave words with wit, grace, humour, and a fine sense of what a bittersweet thing it is to be mortal.” ~ publisher

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