It may be that your correspondent is feeling his advancing years. Why even contemplate such a subject as obituaries? As an art form the obituary must necessarily be short, neither biography nor reflection on the decades in which the subject may have lived. Unlike a biography, an obituary must, in the briefest of forms, encapsulate the very essence of an individual: the personal, professional, spiritual elements which the life embodied, while eschewing the irrelevant. The skills involved might well be those of the short story writer who must dispense with the novel’s rambles, the character explorations, the myriad influences and relationship complexities, and focus solely on the who. Not just a precis, or worse an executive summary, but a life in miniature. Your correspondent knows the challenges having written a couple, the best of which, on scientist and scientific envoy W.E. (Bill) Purnell, appeared in Chemistry in Australia in November 2009. Another piece, about the late Ken Tribe which appeared on this blog in 2010 was more personal reflection tha true obituary.
There are special skills involved in writing miniatures. Composers wonder at the works of Webern: short in length but long in content and feeling. The Haiku compresses ideas in a rigorous way but does not constrain insight or feeling. Of course, the obiturist has more to play with than seventeen syllables, which is just as well since dealing with a broader spectrum. But the same principles apply. A personality, a life must be communicated in perhaps 1200 words, not a task for other than the most skilled wordsmith.
Along with the formal obituary, there are two other similar forms which depart somewhat from the ideal. These generally appear in the daily press and may owe some of their deficiencies to deadlines. The first is the simple recording of the death of a noteworthy individual. These usually read like a curriculum vitae. At the end of the article the reader knows what the deceased has done but knows nothing of the individual. The other is where the death embodies a wider story of how and why the deceased departed this life, and the individual is subsumed into the mystery or wonder of the narrative. These forms are perhaps mere journalism, lesser in the wordsmith’s eye than the true craft of the obituary.
References to the times in which the subject lived and those with whom they dealt should only intrude if they add to the knowledge of the subject. Too often, and particularly in the journalistic obituary, the background story becomes the main event to the detriment of the reader’s eventual understanding of the individual.
Depending on your obsessions there can be numerous reasons for reading newspapers and magazines from the back. It may be sports news is your “thing” or perhaps a favoured columnist appears on the back page. The true obituary tends often to be at or near the back of the publication, perhaps the best example of which is The Economist magazine where the obituary always takes up the last page. Belying its location, the writing is invariable stylish, concise and insightful. You would expect that of The Economist, the writers for which are happy to let their work shine without attribution. No by-lines here, so the obituary writer or writers are unknown. Compare that with a recent short article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a deceased jurist. This required not one, but two named journalists to write a rather pedestrian obit.
The last five months of The Economist have produced a fascinating selection of obituaries, ranging from the quaint and obscure to the great and the good: Evan Boland, Irish poet; Lily Lian, Parisian street chanteuse; Comrade Duch, a hated member of the Khmers Rouge; Larry Kramer, a AIDS campaigner; Julian Bream, guitarist and of course Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice. How’s this for variety? Some you may know, some not. But after reading their obituaries you will certainly know more about them than before, understand them better, and know more of the time and place in which they, and indeed we have lived. Such is the skill of the competent obiturist.
Your correspondent recommends, therefore, if you care for the modern social history of the world, you read from the back. The obituary page of The Economist is the best place to start.