For many years, the section for obituaries, or ‘stiffs’ as they are affectionately known in the trade, was the corner of a newspaper where journalists past their own sell-by date were sent to work out their declining years. As in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the obits competed with Nature Notes as the dustiest corner of a Fleet Street building. The obituaries published were often a rehash of Who’s Who and the annual honours lists, with much emphasis on wartime service, medals and letters after names. Like the court circular or the official diary, obituaries were seen as a way of the upper classes knowing who to cross off their Christmas card or hunting ball lists.

Then in the mid-1980s, along with the revolutions in the newspaper industry, someone appears to have realised that obits could be much more than that. They could actually be a way of celebrating a life; they could even, more ambitiously, build up a fascinating social history of the country in recent times. (Foreigners were often still regarded with suspicion.)
Hugh Massingberd on the Daily Telegraph is usually credited with playing a leading role in this awakening, after being made obituaries editor in 1986. Massingberd was a devotee of P.G. Wodehouse, and delighted in publishing what he called ‘a celebration of eccentric lives’. Take this opening paragraph, published on September 1, 1993: ‘Anne Cumming, who has died in London aged 75, was a sexual adventuress who wrote two erotic travelogues and in 1992 appeared topless in the Sunday Sport newspaper under the headline “Stunnagran!”’

But as well as eccentricity, Massingberd hit the nail on the head when he defined the obituaries he preferred as ‘colourful biographical short stories’. We Brits are well-known to be obsessed with biography, and often a life can be told even more strikingly in 1000 to 1500 words than in three exhaustively researched tomes. This implies that, rather than simply listing achievements and honours, the obituary writer needs to remember he or she is telling a story. The same principles apply as in the rest of journalism: you have to grab the reader’s attention and, if possible, not let it go.
This often means disrupting the order of: ‘so and so has died at the age of 115 after a battle with illness, followed by childhood / education / career / wives and partners’, and so on. It is far more interesting to hear anecdotes such as how ‘the Bounding Basque’, or rather pre-war tennis star Jean Borotra, ‘ran into two women while making a return, kissed the hands of both as [his partner] Brugnon kept the rally going, and then raced back to win the point with another of his clinching volleys.’

This sudden moment of bringing readers up close to the person who has died, even to imagine that you shared moments of the life of somebody you never actually knew, is at the heart of the ‘new obituaries’. This was the approach of The Independent where I was often surprised to be given a full page to write an appreciation of some relatively unknown Latin American author or singer. Soon after, it became the style of The Guardian and The Economist, which has devoted a page to obituaries since the 1990s, and makes a point of choosing the unlikely from all around the world. Recent pieces in the magazine include obituaries of Whitney Smith, ‘vexillologist’ (no, I didn’t either, which is why I read on), or the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, whose demise after more than 400 years was announced three weeks before Christmas 2016.
In its early days, The Independent was determined to take a new approach across the board — they refused to join in the parliamentary lobby system for receiving briefings for example. And it was among the first newspapers to move away from the idea that obituaries should be anonymous. Indy obituaries had a by-line, and the writer was encouraged to include details of how he or she had come into contact with the deceased. The obituary was no longer a mere record of someone’s passing but a first-hand testimony of the most striking details of their life.

There are obvious dangers to this: the obituarist has to remember that he or she is not the hero of the piece. And removing anonymity quite often means there can be problems: a colleague of mine recently faced repeated demands from a family member for phrases to be changed (largely to augment that person’s own role in the deceased’s life). These were followed, after publication, by threats of libel.

An extension of this more personal approach has meant that nowadays obituaries often include quotes from the deceased that once again enhance the reader’s understanding of their view of life. A good example of this is James Campbell’s piece on Patrick Leigh Fermor in The Guardian: ‘Paddy referred to his chair-scratching cats as “interior desecrators and natural downholsterers”, and enjoyed the day when “a white goat entered from the terrace, followed by six more in single file”. They inspected the living room, then left again “without the goats or the house seeming in any way out of countenance.”’

This impetus is what led the current Telegraph obituaries editor, Harry de Quetteville, to claim at the 2013 Hay Literature Festival that an article ‘has to be about entertainment, that’s what makes obituaries uplifting.’ But just how far should this entertainment value be taken? One of the few changes in recent years to the hallowed BBC Radio 4 schedule has been its obituary programme Last Word. In their attempts to make this as vivid as possible, the presenters appear to have been given the instruction that they should chuckle at least once in the half-hour show to dispel the gloom. When for example I was being interviewed about the death of the prominent existentialist Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato, I was rather taken aback when the presenter laughed out loud when I described how Sabato’s answering machine contained his recording saying: ‘I’m far too depressed to come to the phone at the moment. Please leave a message.’

Shakespeare’s Mark Antony asserts that ‘The evil that men do lives after them / the good is oft interrèd with their bones’. (Of course he then goes on to prove the opposite for Julius Caesar.) But the general rule even of more recent obituaries is to speak only good of the dead. Back in the day when every Oxbridge professor was duly accorded his (and it was an almost exclusively male domain) last words, the convention of ‘he died at Northampton’ was a widely recognised euphemism for the subject’s eccentricities having toppled over into insanity — ‘Northampton’ being recognised as a euphemism for a mental hospital near Cambridge.

The other delicate issue is how far an obituary should dwell on the last moments or the cause of a person’s death. For many years, the mention of someone committing suicide was considered too intrusive, as was any allusion to HIV-AIDS. As ever in journalism this was driven by mixed motives. On the one hand, the fear of complaint or legal action by surviving relatives or friends; on the other, a sense of an individual’s right to privacy, especially in the final moments of their life.

But attitudes towards privacy have inevitably changed, along with much else in British society. Newspapers no longer salute wartime heroes or ‘dotty dowagers’ (another of Hugh Massingberd’s predilections). And their obituary pages reflect our increasing obsession with ‘celebrities’. But the challenge for the obituary writer remains the same. As with a good novelist, she or he has to bring a character (back) to life in as convincing and moving a way as possible, so that the readers will come away feeling almost as if that person had just stepped out of the room after an engaging conversation.

Nick Caistor is a writer of non-fiction and a translator. He has published short biographies of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Octavio Paz, and written extensively on Latin American politics and culture.

13-02-2017
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