Skip to comments.The fine art of Obituary
Posted on 12/16/2005 12:57:38 PM PST by aculeus
Ian Brunskill, editor GREAT LIVES A century in obituaries 684pp. Times Books. £20. 0 00 720168 0
Neither a memorial address nor a full-scale biography, the obituary notice is an underrated literary genre. To narrate the life, evoke the personality and assess the historical significance of someone who died only a day or so previously is no trivial task. Obituarists have to work quickly. They should avoid causing unnecessary pain to the living, but they must also be candid. They have to hazard an instant judgement, while recognizing that it may be overturned by later revelations. If they make mistakes, they will provoke a barrage of protest. But a life story well told, and a personality felicitously evoked, can give enormous pleasure.
Curiously, the history of this highly sophisticated art form has never been written. When did it become customary for newspapers to supplement the simple announcement of a notable persons death with a biography and a critical assessment? When did editors begin the practice of laying down draft obituaries in advance, so that, with a little updating, they would be ready for publication when the moment came? How have the conventions of obituary-writing changed over the years? And what is the value of obituaries to posterity? Literary historians have yet to give adequate answers to any of these questions.
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I always read the obituaries. Never know whne you will come across someone's name who seeing it there will brighten you whole day.
In recent decades, competition from other newspapers has been severe. The signed obituaries of the Independent and Guardian give them an interest which the strictly anonymous notices in The Times cannot possess (though speculation about their authorship can rival Su Doku as an intellectual sport). The Independent pioneered the imaginative use of pictorial illustrations; it was also the first to devote much space to circus artists, rock musicians and similar figures. The Daily Telegraph has always given closer attention to army officers and Masters of Foxhounds, while the Guardian finds more room for radical feminists, Labour activists and the sandal-wearing classes.
Originally from the WSJ.
Always read the obit. If your name is not there, go to work.
I do genealogy, and collect fun things like this:
This obituary is from the "Clio Messenger," October 5, 1933, Clio (Genesee County) Michigan. Montrose is a small town near Clio.
"Montrose lost one of its former residents this week when Peter Leonard died at the home of his daughter in Flint. Pete was probably one the worst old reprobates that ever graced the streets of Montrose.
Always a trouble-maker without a good word for man, woman or child -- words of truth probably never passed from his mouth for many of the fifty years of his depredations on earth.
Unprincipled from the years that the writer knew him, meanness far surpassed any thoughts of goodness that the average person would command and exemplify.
He has passed on, and it is not likely that Montrose will ever have another resident his equal -- at least most people have their moments of decency. May his sojourn in Hell be as lengthy as his cursed days on earth is the wish of his many enemies."
Ralph C. Gillett, Editor and Publisher
I think its a way to pay tribute to the deceased's life. Its very personal and it means more coming from a loved one. I wrote obits for online memorials to my late parents. While I can't always drive to visit their graves, looking them up at their virtual memorials is easily done any time I want with a mouse click.
Read them every day. I never know when my name will be listed and I can't chance that happening. A good friend of mine died in August and his obit was the best I've read in a long while. His family even has a website with his accomplishments highlighted.
One admires the candour of the Times obituarist who began his notice in 1873 by observing that our readers will not so much be surprised at hearing that Alessandro Manzoni, the veteran novelist and poet of Italy, has at last died at the ripe age of 89, as that he was still alive.
Once in the 1920s, I believe, the newspaper printers inserted into an otherwise bland obituary two words; "at last".
Harry Cohn was still in charge of everything at Columbia when he died of a heart attack in 1958, at the age of sixty-six. It was raw and rainy on the day of his funeral, but a large crowd gathered to see the last of him, which prompted Red Skelton to remark, It goes to show that the public will always come if you give them what they want.
-- Otto Friedrich, City of Nets.
From a tombstone for real:
Owen Moore went away.
Owing more than he could pay.
Obituaries can only be read by people whose name are not in them :)
Ummmmmm, Alfred Nobel read his.
Didn't like what he saw, and founded the Nobel Prizes as a result. He wanted to be remembered as something other than the man who made war more terrible through his invention of Dynamite (Which he intended to make war unthinkable!)
Mmmm, not necessarily.