Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Deathman Cometh - Richard Wheeler on Obits

At my advanced age, I pay attention to obituaries more than I once did. It is not just that I am losing friends and acquaintances. The people who populated public life when I was young are slipping away, celebrities, eccentrics, the distinguished and the obscure. Each obituary brings back memories and sometimes moments of great tenderness.

The art of obituary writing has fallen on bad times, especially since the task has largely been turned over to families who write their own and pay for the newspaper space. I hadn't thought much about what makes a good obituary until recently, when my wife gave me a 2001 Scribner book, 52 McGs. These are the fifty-two best obits written by Robert McG. Thomas for the New York Times, largely in the late nineties.

Suddenly I found myself in an unexplored and beautiful world. Robert McG Thomas's secret was to capture the character of the deceased, and present it gently, through anecdote, and occasional physical description. In the brief space of an obit he caught people's essence better than most novelists, and I came to regard him as something of a genius.

His obits refrained from criticism, even of the most noxious, but a simple recitation of the dark facts in such a life sufficed. He was at his best with eccentrics and the notorious. Among the subjects of his obits was the woman who created the Bridey Murphy hoopla, the fixer for the Chicago mob, the country's top genealogist, the pastor who buried Lee Harvey Oswald, the postmaster who introduced the ZIP code, the lady who inspired the expatriate literary life in Paris of the 50s, the conman who invented a primitive tribe on Mindanao called the Tasadays, and on and on.

Part of what I derived from this richly-wrought book is the utter diversity of our lives, a diversity that no novelist could possibly capture. Robert McG. Thomas found his true vocation late in life, wrote brilliant obits for several years, only to die at age 60 in the year 2000. I count him among the true literary masters of our times. And I have learned that the art of writing obituaries can be the highest calling of all for those of us who write.

1 comment:

Laura Lippman said...

Ed,

Another obituary lover here, and as well as a McG fan. I often tell people that if I had stayed in journalism, I'd want to be on the obit desk. It was one of the most satisfying things I ever did. It involved deadline writing (which I actually loved), and reporting. But it also was the one journalism job in which one could grant someone comfort, even while remaining rigorously objective. When people have lost someone they love, they are very eager to see that person memoriaized. Yet they understood that editorial obituaries had to tell the full story, so if the deceased had a notorious past, it was mentioned.

The Economist does one full-length obituary every week. And, in general, I have found the obituaries in some British newspapers (the Guardian comes to mind) superior to most U.S. ones.