Two Bay Area News Group journalists have won a first-place national award for their yearlong series "Cost of Dying."

Science writer Lisa Krieger and photojournalist Dai Sugano won the top prize in the consumer/feature category of the Association of Health Care Journalists contest for newspapers with circulations above 100,000. Their work detailing how harsh the end-of-life experience can be and gentler ways to die also received an honorable mention in the health policy category.

In the consumer category, The New York Times entry placed second and The Boston Globe third.

"This superb journalism performed a terrific public service for readers and their families as they face daunting issues when approaching the end of their lives," said Dave Butler, Editor of the Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group. "I would encourage those who missed the original publication to check out the series on our websites."

The series and a guide to end-of-life planning are online at www.mercurynews.com/cost-of-dying.

The Cost of Dying stories began when Krieger first wrote about how her elderly father's final days in intensive care. She learned how difficult it is to reject care, even as expenses soar. Subsequent stories that drew wide response from readers and health-care professionals explored end-of-life care and costs, dilemmas created by the promise of high-tech medicine, planning for dying and alternatives to high-tech hospital care.

As part of the series, Sugano's video and photo essay "Gayla's Goodbye" chronicled a San Jose woman's final weeks of life after she chose to forgo treatment for kidney failure in favor of stargazing, spicy foods and cherished time with dear friends.

The winning entry comes with a $500 prize and a trip to Boston to accept the award and participate in panels discussing how the series was done.

The Association of Health Care Journalists is a 1,300-member independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues.

The series appeared in Bay Area News Group newspapers circling the bay, including the San Jose Mercury, Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times and their affiliated daily newspapers in the East Bay. The group has a Sunday print circulation of 651,338 and the print audience combined with web reaches 2.7 million adults each week.