The top 10 obituary myths
By Sandra Martin
As an obituary writer I have come to accept that most people recoil when they hear what I do for a living, as though I have something catching. I have become accustomed to the arched eyebrow the nervous laugh, the disparaging comments about the Siberia of Journalism and even the jokes: How’s life on the Dead Beat, ha ha ha. Get it? Or a Live? Blog?, as several wits queried when J-Source covered an obituary conference in Toronto recently.
Once and for all—I hope—I’d like to dispel the most common myths about obituaries.
1. Obituaries are about death
Obituaries are about life—not death. Death is only the entry point. In the same way that a birthday or an anniversary provides the occasion to reflect on a milestone or an achievement, death is the opportunity to set an entire life in context, locally, nationally and sometimes globally.
The sad and even tragic fact of somebody’s death is a news flash; the laments of mourners are reaction pieces; public utterances at funerals for the deceased are eulogies; but the obituary is something else. It is an account of a life in all its complexity —the light as well as the shadow, the achievements as well as the failings. That makes an obituary a combination of biography, history, analysis and reportage.
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2. Obituaries are depressing
I rarely write about accident or murder victims or young soldiers killed in war zones, people whose lives are snuffed out by bad luck, circumstance or tragedy before they have had a chance to realize their dreams or their potential. The deaths I write about are sad but they are rarely tragic or depressing. My subjects are people who were famous until the klieg lights of public attention dimmed. Their names are familiar to older readers, but unknown to a younger generation. The goal is to make them breathe once more on the page. What I have learned is that every life is fascinating, if only I can dig deep enough into the past and learn the personal details of my subject’s life and career before deadline. That’s why I think the dead beat should be called the life beat.
3. Obituaries have no impact
Au contraire. Homer’s account of the great warrior Achilles in The Iliad —his heroics, his rage, his vulnerability—was spoken, not read, but otherwise his epic poem has all the components of a modern obituary. For centuries people have read the written form of The Iliad for history, inspiration and the lyrical beauty of its language.
Alfred Nobel provides a modern example. He changed his own behaviour and affected the lives of many other people, because of a powerful obituary. A Swedish chemist and armaments manufacturer, he was the inventor of dynamite. Today, though, he is remembered for the Nobel Peace and other prestigious prizes which are awarded annually in Sweden.
Less well known is why Nobel left his fortune to philanthropy. In 1888, his older brother Ludwig died. A French journalist made a mistake in the obituary and thought Alfred had died. That’s how he read his own obituary under the critical headline, The Merchant of Death. "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Nobel was so shocked that he determined to rehabilitate his legacy, while he could, and rewrote his will to establish the Nobel Prizes, thereby turning the merchant of death into a philanthropist for peace.
4. The Dead Beat is the lowest form of journalism
On the old dailies obituaries were the domain of junior reporters and old-timers waiting for their pensions or a buyout. That was the management theory back in the days of rewrite desks, several daily editions, and “just the facts” reporting. Those days are gone. Nowadays obituaries offer space in which to write—a precious commodity in a highly visual and trimmed down medium.
Far from a dead end, the obituary beat is an invitation to expand your horizons by learning new disciplines as background research on the deceased, and finding new ways to tell the story, by repackaging your research in other parts of the paper and on the web. Here are three examples: combine an obituary of jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson with links of him playing the piano; recycle taped research interviews with news photographs and a voice over in a multi-media extension to a print obituary of a controversial politico, such as Jean Pelletier; or ask an activist such as Dr. Henry Morgentaler for an advance video interview and run it on the web with the breaking news for his obituary. In the process you learn new skills, use material that otherwise would have hit the floor, and get an additional and a different kind of byline.
5. The Dying don’t want to talk about death
In my experience it is the people around the dying who are squeamish about death. The dying know what is happening. While most of them want to go on living, they know the end is coming and they are reflective about their lives, their times and what is happening to them. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt and Half-Empty by David Rakoff are three end-of-life narratives that are compelling as literature, but they also enhance our understanding of what each of us will face some day.
I’ve talked to many dying people about their lives for what is delicately called an advance interview. William Hutt was one of the most memorable. He was a great actor, but he was also a patriot. He volunteered during the Second World War for the ambulance brigade so he could serve his country without having to shoot anybody. Of course that meant that he probably saw more blood and gore than most combatants.
When I spoke with him on a hot June afternoon in 2007, he was completely lucid but he had an ethereal air as though he had one foot in this world and the other in the next. Fewer than five days later he died to the shock of friends, colleagues and this obituary writer.
How I wish now that I’d had a video camera that afternoon, so that the final interview with Canada’s most majestic actor-- a conversation about pacifism, patriotism, winning the military medal for bravery, growing up at odds with his own sexuality, and how he was approaching his own death--could have been captured for posterity.
6. Obituaries are all pre-written and left to moulder in a drawer until the death knell tolls
Nobody can predict who will be the next to die or when they will breathe their last, but there is one thing I can tell you: there is no greater prospect of immortality than to have a pre-written obituary. If you write it, they won’t die-- at least not until you have turned your attention to somebody else.
May I mention Nelson Mandela, Prince Philip, and of course our own Farley Mowat? I have written and revised their obituaries so often that I now think of them as old friends with whom I have an annual reunion.
The people who do die are the ones you haven’t written about, and they usually breathe their last after deadline. That’s what happened with Pierre Berton, on Nov. 30, 2004, the same day that U.S. President George W. Bush arrived in Ottawa for his first state visit to Canada. For once, an American president had to take second place to a Canadian icon on the front page of The Globe and Mail.
7. Obituaries are eulogies
After I wrote mass murderer Clifford Olson’s obituary in September 2011, several people asked me why I had dignified such a heinous figure with a tribute—which is the word people often mistakenly use to describe obituaries. There was nothing good to say about Olson, the habitual criminal who abducted, tortured and killed 11 children in British Columbia in a heinous nine-month rampage in the early 1980s, his revolting “cash for bodies” deal with authorities, or his prison cell antics to negotiate a new trial, parole and other concessions. But his diabolical behaviour changed the justice system in Canada. Measures that we take for granted nowadays, such as victim impact statements at sentencing and parole board hearings, were non-existent back then. Amber Alerts, a National Registry of Missing Children, amendments to strengthen the Criminal Code with respect to sexual assault, child abduction and sexual abuse have also become standard. That’s why Olson is worth writing about—not to celebrate him, but to chronicle how we changed in reaction to his horrific actions.
8. Obituaries camouflage the bad parts
There is a delicate balance between telling the truth and respecting the grief of family and friends. How much life is too much information in an obituary? That is the eternal question. I have evolved a working rule: if the information can be documented and it had a fundamental impact on my subject’s life, I include it, however unseemly.
Consequently, I have suffered the wrath of family and friends who feel they have the right to dictate the terms and conditions of what I write. I have learned that the most innocuous detail—at least to me—can be the trigger unleashing pent up grief, camouflaged as rage. The anger is misplaced for I am only the messenger. It is far easier for the grief-stricken to get mad at me for allegedly speaking ill of the dead, than it is for them to blame a loved one for leaving them alone and bereft.
9. The audience for obituaries is dying along with an aging population and the decline of newspapers
The Medill School of Journalism issued a study in December 2009 arguing that obituaries “constitute some of the most popular and widely searched for content on newspaper Web sites.” In fact, family-paid death notices are attracting and driving readers to editorial obituaries in print and to newspaper websites to find out more about the deceased, to connect with families and friends and to leave their own remembrances. Obituaries need to evolve if they are to remain relevant. Remember, it was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and the spread of literacy that created an audience for obituaries in the first place. Social media is simply another evolutionary stage. They help obituaries make the link from the past to the future, draw new audiences, and enhance storytelling capacities. The only proviso is that we remain vigilant about journalistic standards.
10. An obituary is the final word
As an obituary writer in an electronic age, I have been jolted by email messages from readers with new information when it is too late to add a paragraph or revise an opinion. After the fact, I have heard deliciously unvarnished tales from disgruntled step-children, long lost friends, former lovers and even a painter convinced he had been swindled by his celebrated art dealer. Sources that are supposedly dead have on occasion risen Lazarus-like to announce their continued existence and to offer a new slant on the life I have diligently tired to capture in print. All of which has made me dismiss the widely–held assumption that a newspaper obituary is the “final” word. In fact, I have come to appreciate that obituaries are the biographical building blocks of a country’s social and cultural history. Each life is like a brick. Taken together they form a collective narrative that speaks to how a country developed as a nation.
Sandra Martin, a senior features writer with The Globe and Mail, is an award winning journalist and broadcaster. . These 10 myths were adapted from Martin’s book Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada. Photo credit: Nigel Dickson.