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Nowell Briscoe: Archivist Of Death Revisits The Past
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Nowell Briscoe: Archivist Of Death Revisits The Past


Now is the time we usually look back at events that shape the year: wars, elections, catastrophic events and deaths. End-of-year obituaries are a media staple, and we're no exception. Throughout this week, we're going to be remembering some of those who died this year and thinking about why it is we're so fascinated with obituaries in the first place.

Nowell Briscoe, who lives in Atlanta, has been collecting obits for over 50 years. He says his collection is a way of savoring people after they're gone.

Mr. NOWELL BRISCOE: Every day, I pick up The New York Times, the USA Today, and I have a subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Oh, Richard Todd, dashing actor dies at 90. Richard Todd was the person who played the Reverend Peter Marshall in that wonderful movie "A Man Called Peter." He preached here in Atlanta. So let's just tear this out.

One time - oh, last year, I decided I was going to see, just for my own curiosity, how many obituaries I collected in a month's time. Four hundred and something in a month's time. Oh, I'm addicted. There's no two ways about it. Thirty-something notebooks and several hundred in each notebook. And see, I've got boxes full of loose obits that I have yet to paste into notebooks.

This is the notebook that started it all with the obituaries of my grandmother and my grandfather. Pierce Briscoe(ph), beloved citizen, passes Monday. Cotton merchant and beloved Monroe resident died...

When this particular issue of the paper came out, daddy brought it home, and he showed it to me. He said: Here's granddaddy Briscoe's obituary. It's in the paper. And the same thing happened when my grandmother died. I was 7 years old. He had a big (unintelligible) easy chair in the den, and I crawled up in his lap, and he read the entire article to me, and he said: Doesn't that make you feel good that so many people thought so much of your grandmother? And I said, yeah.

Her disposition was always sweet and cheerful, and the final summons found her ready and willing to go. Countless friends have assurances of the Tribune's sympathy. You wouldn't find something like that in today's paper. There was an intimacy there.

I have my latest scrapbook right here. I usually like to do this on a rainy day. Or if it's too cold to be outside, I put music on, open up my bottle of glue.

I've got the most wonderful obit. It was a man who had a walrus moustache, and pince-nez glasses with a ribbon cord around his neck. How many people do you know in 2009 wearing pince-nez glasses a la Franklin D. Roosevelt? Nobody. That was enough for me to say, hey, you're included.

Now, here is one: Margaret W. Pepperdine(ph), 89. For 53 years, scholar, nurtured students. She was like my high school history teacher. We don't see obituaries like - about teachers like that much anymore. Even though I didn't know these people, I feel a link to them. The scrapbook's silent. They sit on the shelves. Sometimes they're not opened for weeks, months. But when they are opened, they do make a sound. You're bringing them back to life.

I was talking to a friend of mine not long ago, and he said: I now officially proclaim you as the archivist to the dead. If I'm fortunate enough to have an obit written for me, they will say: Nowell Briscoe, the archivist of death, dies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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SIEGEL: Our story on Nowell Briscoe was produced by Lu Olkowski. Our obituary series is produced by Emily Botein and edited by Deborah George.

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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