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Working the dead beat: Obituary Writers' Conference

What makes an outstanding obituary? Meg Carter speaks to the experts to find out whose tributes are still remembered

It's not always the rich and powerful who have the most compelling life stories. Obituarists from around the world converged on Little Las Vegas, New Mexico this month for the 10th Great Obituary Writers' International Conference. Here are some of their favourite examples from the genre.

Diana Gower, obituaries editor, The Independent:

"Some of the best obituaries are of people you would not necessarily have heard of – ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I was afraid this obit was going to turn out to be a hoax – though I'm glad to say it wasn't."

Dr John Wilkinson, haematologist; published in The Independent, 20 August 1998:

"A 1991 BBC radio documentary about the haematologist John Wilkinson, entitled 33 Lines in 'Who's Who', reveals some amazing claims to fame: during the Second World War he trained seal-lions to defuse bombs; he had devised the zip fly; and he once had to de-louse the entire Sadler's Wells corps de ballet. The programme caused some surprise to friends and colleagues who had known him for years, as he had kept these and his other achievements relatively quiet..."

Andrew McKie, obituaries editor, The Daily Telegraph:

"One obituary that ranks top of many people's lists is that of the third Lord Moynihan. It was soon after the arrival of Hugh Massingberd, though written by his deputy, David Jones. Before then, obituaries had been short and dry... This marked a big bang: the obituary writer tackling the subject's character, and doing so with great sense of humour."

The Third Lord Moynihan; published in The Telegraph, November 1991:

"The third Lord Moynihan provided through his character and career ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer..."

Adam Bernstein, deputy obituaries editor, The Washington Post:

"It wasn't until James Fergusson at The Independent and Hugh Massingberd at The Telegraph that interest broadened beyond leaders in politics, law and the military... The Von Kloberg obit was a strange one, as every other reference to him described him as despicable. Maybe his saving grace was he never took himself too seriously."

Edward von Kloberg III, image shaper for the reviled (including Saddam Hussein); published in The Washington Post, 3 May 2005:

"Von Kloberg embraced the slogan 'Shame is for sissies', as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he travelled with steamer trunks. He added the 'von' to his name because he thought it sounded distinguished.

"In a life full of flamboyance, his end followed form: ... [Von Kloberg], 63, leapt to his death Sunday from 'a castle in Rome', a State Department spokeswoman said... Washington is a city of advocates and image enhancers, but only a few have staked their reputations as representatives of despots, dictators and human-rights violators. For Von Kloberg, the job was a social exercise as well as an all-consuming effort. As he wooed potential clients, he often highlighted his own bad press. There was a lot..."

Robert White, obituaries editor, The Guardian:

"What makes a good obituary? A good story about a good person. Pearl Cornioley was a no-nonsense person who did her bit during the war, to devastating effect."

Pearl Cornioley, wartime secret agent; published in The Guardian, 6 March 2008:

"In May 1944, her normally wary boss fell into Gestapo hands and found himself imprisoned in Buchenwald, which, miraculously, he survived. Pearl and a fellow agent picked up the pieces... Soon she had some 1,500 members of the Maquis working under her direction. Most of their efforts were directed at cutting the Paris-Bordeaux railway line, a task in which she was assisted by her pre-war fiancé, and later husband, Henri Cornioley. Despite placards plastered everywhere... offering a one million franc reward, she was never turned in..."

Ian Brunskill, obituaries editor, The Times:

"Obituaries are about lives, not death. The obituary of Joan Jackson is not just a near-perfect obit in itself, but one of those stories that really only an obit can tell."

Joan Jackson, immortalised as Joan Hunter Dunn in John Betjeman's The Sub-Altern's Love Song; in The Times, 17 April 2008:

"She was the incarnation of [Betjeman's] haut-suburbia ideal: a fresh-faced, very English beauty, completely at home amid tennis courts, rose beds, clipped hedges, golden retrievers, Women's Institutes, jumble sales and sit-up-and-beg bicycles.

"The poem in which Betjeman immortalised her begins: 'Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn,/ Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,/ What strenuous singles we played after tea,/ We in the tournament – you against me!/ Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! Weakness of joy,/ The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,/ With carefulness carelessness, gaily you won,/ I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn'..."

Stephen Tyndale-Biscoe, obituarist, Yorkshire Post:

"Lord Mountgarret was a controversial figure and an outrageous character who had fallen out with all of his family. When that happens there's always a certain sense of liberation for an obituaries writer."

Viscount Mountgarret, president of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club; published in The Yorkshire Post, 11 February 2004:

"Richard Henry Piers Butler... claimed to be directly descended from Henry VII, and his demeanour, especially towards servants and petty officials, could sometimes be that of a nobleman more attuned to the manners of Tudor England than that of Elizabeth II. It did have its uses, for it took a certain robustness to bring order, as he undoubtedly did, to the Yorkshire County Cricket Club...

"Irascible, occasionally outrageous, sometimes stunningly rude, he could also be charming, entertaining and brilliant company... Once, when driving across his 3,000-acre estate to shoot with guests in his 4x4, he came to a gate which was closed. He roared: 'I told that man to leave this gate open!' and drove straight through it, and with bits of the shattered gate hanging off the bumper and draped across the bonnet, he shouted triumphantly: 'That'll teach him. He won't do that again!' And it was his own gate.

"... The story is told how a travel agency once tried to book a hotel for him but was told he couldn't stay there. When he asked why not, he was reminded that on his previous visit he had set fire to another guest's newspaper over the breakfast table."

Sue Cameron, obituaries editor, Financial Times:

"Peter Newton's obituary is a tribute to a wonderful, rich and successful life: a man who trained as a lawyer, worked as a journalist, established a successful vineyard..."

Peter Newton, introduced the Merlot grape to Napa Valley; published in the Financial Times, 23 February 2008:

"Apart from his beloved Anne, wine remained his love. In 1964, they bought a home off Highway 29 near Calistoga [in California's Napa Valley], together with its run-down, 63-acre vineyard...

"At the Sterling vineyards, Newton was one of the first winemakers to realise that the Californian climate would be conducive to more than just the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes mostly grown at the time. He introduced the Merlot grape to the Napa Valley and began fermenting Chardonnays in the barrel for the first time in the US. These moves put two new words – Merlot and Chardonnay – into the vocabulary of ordinary Americans who might previously have chosen between 'red' or 'white'.

Bob Chaundy, former obituaries editor, BBC News:

"The best obituaries can make you laugh, or cry, or both at once. Eccentrics are always fun – The Telegraph is a great source of these, and runs a disproportionately high number about circus acts. But I also particularly like the quirkier stories..."

Selma Koch, famed brassiere maven; published in The New York Times, 14 June 2003:

"Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Centre.

She was 95 and a 34B. In the final years of her life, Mrs Koch appeared on national TV and radio programmes to discuss her speciality and occupational longevity. She relished her celebrity, but not as much as she loved guiding the generations of women who visited her store: she worked seven 10-hour days last week instead of her usual six. Her grandson Danny said he guessed that her only regret would be not dying in the family's store, the Town Shop on Broadway at 82nd Street, something she had often said she hoped to do."

Ann Wroe, obituaries and briefings editor, The Economist:

"My favourite obituaries are about mad aristos boozing in the Bahamas. But most memorable are the simpler characters – ordinary people who bore witness to extraordinary events."

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French footsoldier of the First World War; published in The Economist, 19 March 2008:

"The business of memory is a solid and solemn thing. Plaques are unveiled on the wall; stone memorials are built in the square; the domed mausoleum rises brick by brick over the city. But the business of memory is also as elusive as water or mist. The yellowing photographs slide to the back of the drawer; the voices fade; and the last rememberers of the dead die in their turn, leaving only what Thomas Hardy called 'oblivion's swallowing sea'. The approach of the death of Lazare Ponticelli caused something of a panic in France..."