#04: Letters to the Dead

Photo by Andi Gohr from splitbrain.org

In the United States, the obituary article is reserved for the famous, to remember their greatest achievements and notable struggles. And if you’re not famous, the price of a public death notice ranges from $200 to $13,000.

In Iceland, everyone gets an obituary, from the plumber to the president, free of charge with a maximum of 3,0000 characters. In “Letters to the Dead” we examine the art of obituary writing and what’s created for the living by remembering the dead.

When we choose who to remember with our obituaries, what cultural landscape do we create? For the answer, we speak with a filmmaker who documented the New York Times Obituary Desk, Icelanders who religiously read the obituaries, and a renegade obituarist who finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. Featuring: Vanessa Gould, Director of Obit; Nanna Arnadottir, columnist for Reykjavik Grapevine; Karl Blöndal, Vice Editor of Morgunblaðið; Kay Powell, retired obit writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and more.

Part 1: After the subject of one of her documentaries dies, director Vanessa Gould searches for a way to memorialize him.

Part 2: In Iceland, the local paper, Morgunblaðið, receives and publishes lengthy obituaries from citizens, and when remembrances of the dead started to overcrowd news of the living, they had to change the rules. Karl Blöndal, Vice Editor at Morgunblaðið, and anthropologists, David Koester and Arnar Arnason, tell the story of this shift.

Part 3: In response to the criticism of obituaries lacking diversity, Kay Powell, a retired obituary writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, found the extraordinary in the ordinary when spotlighted the diversity of her city.

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