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The Year's Best Obituary Writing / Nick Ehrhardt

The Year's Best Obituary Writing

Logo image via SPOW

The last few years have seen the art of obituary writing gain more recognition and appreciation than ever. Clever, funny and poignant obits have gone viral over and over, finding their way to Twitter feeds and Facebook pages in record numbers. It's a trend that must have made this year's GrimmiesThe Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) awards for excellence in obituary writing – incredibly hard to judge. With such a fantastic pool to choose from, how could they single out the very best of the best?

Somehow, SPOW's judges managed to narrow it down, awarding Grimmies to the best obit and the best body of work for both 2011 and 2012 (as no award ceremony was held last year). At their conference this past weekend, they announced the winners.

Frank Howard went from breaking laws to making them. So begins the powerful obituary for Canadian convict-turned-lawmaker Frank Howard, written by Tom Hawthorn. Hawthorn won the Grimmy for Best Obit 2011 for his fascinating tribute to a man who turned his life around, and the obituary also constituted part of Hawthorn's Grimmy-winning Body of Work in 2011. A writer for The Globe and Mail, Hawthorn also wrote of Vancouver author Eric Nicol (Nicol's career included a Broadway flop, an infamous literary hoax, and a conviction and fine for being in contempt of court. In typical fashion, he described failure as "the sugar of life: the more lumps you take, the sweeter you are."), journalist Olive Skene Johnson (On a table in a grieving household is a manila folder thick with newspaper clippings and pages torn from magazines…), surfer Isaiah Oke (Amid the pain and anguish, amid the encouraging words of her family and friends, a single plaintive cry will be familiar to anyone who has ever grieved for a partner: “I really just want my Isaiah back.”), and MLB power-hitter Wes Covington (He endured the tribulations of professional baseball's slow and uneasy erasing of the colour line...). Hawthorn's fine writing makes his sweep of the 2011 awards seem completely natural.

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 Frank Howard (right) prepares to climb a 90-foot spar as part of loggers' sports days in Terrace, B.C. (Image via The Globe and Mail)
Frank Howard (right) prepares to climb a 90-foot spar as part of loggers' sports days in Terrace, B.C. (Image via The Globe and Mail)

For 2012, the Best Body of Work award went to Bryan Marquard, writing for the Boston Globe. His varied subjects in 2012 included mountaineer Ann Brooks Carter (Her parents liked to hike up Mount Washington in New Hampshire on wedding anniversaries when they were able. Mrs. Carter topped them by spending part of her first wedded winter braving the mountain’s windblown snow...), journalist Anthony Shadid (Across the Middle East, Anthony Shadid placed himself in mortal danger again and again, covering wars and conflicts and filing on deadline prose shimmering with poetic intensity...), professor and mandolinist John McGann (Fingers racing at the hound-chased tempo bluegrass commands, John McGann performed masterfully on the mandolin as he taught and inspired students at Berklee College of Music about the breadth and depth of traditional acoustic music...), educational mentor Lucia Mayerson-David (New to Boston and new to English as the principal spoken language, Lucia Mayerson-David walked through the Public Garden in 1969 speaking Spanish aloud to hear the music of her native tongue in the air…), and activist Rev. John Crocker Jr. (Joining 14 other Episcopal clergy, both black and white, the Rev. John Crocker Jr. stepped into the segregated restaurant of a Jackson, Miss., bus station in September 1961. Traveling by bus on a civil rights prayer pilgrimage, the group’s journey quickly detoured into a Jackson jail for several nights…).

Taking the honor of Best Obituary for 2012 was Kim Janssen's heartbreaking tribute to Delfino "Don Vale" Mora for the Chicago Sun-Times. His long, touching obituary for a man killed in a senseless act of gang violence begins with the words Delfino Mora worked so hard he built his own grave… and goes on to chronicle a family's journey from Mexico to Chicago and back, with the tragedy of their patriarch's murder at the center. It, along with the other obituaries honored by SPOW's Grimmies, is a perfect example of the type of writing that elevates the obituaries from overlooked to outstanding.