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Boomers aiming to go out in style

To the surprise of no one, the generation is putting its own stamp on death-related issues.

September 10, 2007|Steven Rosen | Special to The Times

Mortality.

For baby boomers, it's a concept that's inevitably coming into focus -- the final frontier, as it were. Like every other milestone in their lives -- from drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll to parenting to AARP membership -- boomers are embracing the concept of their own demise with the kind of single-mindedness that has characterized their generation.

As recent examples in popular culture, journalism and the business world show, death can be something that creates curiosity about life's lessons and goals -- not to mention excellent marketing opportunities. Krishna Andavolu, editor of the new and online-only (for now) Obit magazine (obit-mag.com), believes that boomers are the driving force behind this changing approach to death.

"It was a generation looking for personal meaning in things an older generation did out of familiarity, and now it's looking at death," he said by phone from his Brooklyn office. "They're making it a point of discussion rather than a point of mute acceptance."

Andavolu sees a wealth of raw material to draw from in the lives of people who made an impact, however briefly, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Then, a mass-media revolution coincided with the birth of new political and cultural movements that affected society from the bottom up. As some pass on, others try to remember them meaningfully -- using new tools like the Internet as well as old ones like drama.

"It's not just pop culture that happened with the boomers, it's also progressive culture," says Andavolu, who's only 24. "So we're trying to show either through the baby boomers we feature -- or the generation before that influenced them -- how their life helped shape the culture we now know today."

The magazine was started by J. Robert Hillier, a Princeton, N.J., architect, with his wife, Barbara. In response to an e-mail query, Hillier said he had invested about $500,000 to date in Obit. Andavolu says the website draws about 5,500 readers a day.

Obit has plans to publish a print edition at some point and is already selling subscriptions. It has put prototype covers featuring Susan Sontag and Gordon Parks on its website. One reason for the delay may be competition from traditional media: obituaries in major newspapers and other sources are available instantaneously these days, often enhanced with photos, video clips and links to writings, speeches, paintings or songs by the newly deceased. The Internet is an especially active place, with websites, blogs and discussion groups like Alt.Obituaries, Writers We've Lost and Even the Great Must Die. (Obit offers links to several.)

In finding its own way, Obit has been resourceful in trying to expand death coverage. It has a weather map-like feature called "Mourning Obits" that links to newspaper obit sections throughout the country. Some of its offbeat stories include a look at dog-walking at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and an analysis of "The Sopranos" finale. "Death is a point of discussion rather than a point of mute acceptance -- that's the hallmark of the baby boomer legacy we're trying to capture in our magazine," Andavolu says. "

Death gets around

Although Obit is trying to make death as interesting and compelling to its target generation as the Grateful Dead once was, it isn't alone in its vision. Setting the tone was Alan Ball's influential "Six Feet Under" HBO series, about an unusual family of undertakers for whom the line between life and death was nervously fluid. In 2003 came Mark Romanek's video for Johnny Cash's version of the Nine Inch Nails' song "Hurt," an unsentimental, death-staring elegy for the aging but (at the time) still-alive singer. And a popular film at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, Stephen Walker's "Young @ Heart," features a mortality-cognizant elderly chorus singing songs like the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?," Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" and David Bowie's "Golden Years" in order to uncover a poignant new layer of meaning to rock music. Fox Searchlight has acquired it for theatrical release.

One strikingly successful, if inadvertent, example of this new-ways-to-think-about-death trend has taken on a life of its own. Patricia Schultz's "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" travel book from Workman Publishing has sold 2 million copies worldwide since debuting in 2003. It's still on the New York Times list of paperback advice books after a long run at the top along with its just-released sequel, "1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die." Among its spinoffs are calendars, journals and a TV series.

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