"...obituaries are about the juicy stuff of life..."
January 30, 2012 9:10 AM   Subscribe

“Obituaries are not about death. They are a celebration of life." The Art of the Obituary

The Daily Telegraph of London is known for their thorough and in-depth obituaries of notable people from all walks of life. The section is extensive, and well categorized. (Click Obituaries in the header, then a subhead, and then in some categories, see the "Related Sections" for further breakdowns.)

Event page for Death: Southbank Centre's Festival of the Living

Obits linked in the article
* Michel Peissel
* Gevork Vartanyan
* Roy Skelton
* Gay Kindersley
* Rob Buckman
* Hugh Massingberd

Some of their more memorable recent obits
* Princesse Ghislaine de Polignac
* Chris Dale
* William Donaldson
* Bill Foxley
* Nicol Williamson
* Steve Jobs
* Colonel Albert Bachmann
* Amy Winehouse
* Colonel Michael Singleton
* John Philby
* Dick Francis

They've also made a mistake or two....
* "The day I managed to 'kill off' Tex Ritter's wife"
posted by zarq (14 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
“Obituaries are not about death. They are a celebration of life."

Or, as I heard it put once: "Obituaries don't tell us who died. They tell us who lived."
posted by marxchivist at 9:12 AM on January 30, 2012

Well, yes. But if you see "obituary" at the head of the article, you've got one pretty major spoiler about the life it's celebrating.
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on January 30, 2012

"Obituaries are not about death. They are a celebration of life."

Isn't this what Raiden said about the Mortal Kombat tournament?
posted by demiurge at 9:15 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the US an obituary is an ad.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:18 AM on January 30, 2012

A Reminder that Every Life Matters seems to go well with this post. Remembrance of existence is powerful thing.
posted by infinite intimation at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2012

One of my favorite obituaries from the Times Picayune in New Orleans: (Names removed)

R________ B_________ E______________ (always known as B_____ to those who loved him - and those who employed him and exploited his work ethic) -- died Tuesday afternoon, December 4th, 2007. A massive heart attack killed him - despite the heroic efforts of many physicians, surgeons and nurses - in a waiting area at Ochsner Hospital. He was not an inpatient there. He was there to provide company and comfort to Br____, his wife, whom he loved and supported, in all ways, for 32 years. Her heart is broken. He died a horrendous death, on the floor of the waiting room, at Br___'s feet. To her, he was the most kind, most gentle, and most generous person she has ever known. His death should be a warning to all those who believe that they are being used by insensitive employers . He deserved better, both in life and death. B_____ had been seduced into a sedentary and high stress life style after he moved to New Orleans by the promise of "big money" from a corporate defense law firm . Essentially, his succumbing to that seduction and his devotion to duty caused his death. Of the many shareholders in the firm for which he labored, only one took the personal initiative to call Br_____ to offer her personal condolences . Several colleagues believe that Br____ and B_____ were divorced. This is not true. They lived apart for several years but were in friendly communication, especially enjoying Sunday breakfasts together. His devoted secretary rushed to the hospital, along with the office manager, to comfort and assist Br____. D______ has been kind and helpful and is greatly saddened by B_____'s demise. B____ was brilliantly intelligent, with an impressive knowledge of the law and many other disciplines. B_____'s encyclopedic knowledge of sterling silver -- including the most rare and sought after makers and patterns - put him far above the average collectors. He also knew textiles intimately, including old and new quilts, embroideries from ancient to modern, laces, silks, and all forms of the highest quality handwork in fabric and thread. His appreciation of textiles included loving the custom made shirts that Br______ designed and constructed for him. B_____ loved handmade rugs the best of all of the textiles. He was a connoisseur of the finest of hand woven rugs, both Asian and Middle Eastern. He appreciated exquisite fabrics from around the world and from every era. From his parents who were antique dealers he learned at an early age to discern the best in art and antiques of every sort. He knew porcelains, paintings, fine photography, jewelry, glassware, watches, bronzes and a myriad of other forms of the finest of decorative arts. His homes reflected his love of the beautiful and unique. His residence in Algiers Point was a house he selected because he said "I want to buy a house that is so beautiful that people will point at it". He achieved this, as he achieved so many of his personal goals. He loved and thoroughly enjoyed and knew gourmet food, superb Scotch and made the world's best chocolate chip cookies. He loved and was amazingly successful at seeking out treasures in yard sales and auctions. He shared those treasures unselfishly with Br____ and friends and colleagues. B_____ was awesomely knowledgeable in the law since it was the foremost of his passions. Close behind that fund of academic knowledge came his deep and profound knowledge of many sciences. Colleagues from his years as a notable attorney in York County Pennsylvania have said recently "B_____ was extremely intelligent and knew more law than most attorneys" and "the guy was just impossible to adequately describe". When people say "We're not going to see the likes of him again" it applies tenfold to him". Colleagues at the New Orleans firm have talked about his "ability to comprehend and converse" about the complicated scientific processes of the corporations he represented. They have said "he could talk on those Ph.D. levels on all issues of science." B____ was the very first law clerk employed in York County Pennsylvania in 1974. He clerked for all seven sitting judges at that time. It was at that time that he got the nickname "The Wizard". Later he became a full-time public defender there because, as he told Br_____, "I don't want to prosecute people". He became the chief Public Defender in the early 1980's and was in that position, serving indigent people with his impartial and powerful skills till he retired in 1996. Then he happily moved to New Orleans with Br____ and a retired racing Greyhound - both of whom he adored. While residing in York, PA, B____ was very much involved in the care of a large collection of exotic birds that he and Br_____ collected and kept and propagated. They received permission from the federal government to keep and attempt to propagate the crucially endangered Rothschilds Mynahs. B_____ and Br____ succeeded in raising four Rothschilds (Bali) Mynahs, hand-feeding them from the day they hatched in an incubator. They also raised hundreds of rare and delicate finches and softbilled birds and exhibited them all across the USA. They won many awards, including "Exhibitor of the Year" and "Outstanding Grassroots Activist" awards for supporting the captive breeding programs for rare and endangered species. They expanded that loving care into founding and operating a wild bird rescue agency that treated and released native wild birds that had been orphaned or injured. They released many hundreds of them back to the wild. That organization still flourishes and serves today in the care of dear friends of B____ and Br_____. While still in Pennsylvania, B_____ became a successful gardener. He expanded that knowledge and skill in Louisiana. With Br_____ he amassed a collection of rare orchids, ferns, ivies and bromeliads that comprise a lush garden at their Algiers Point home. B____ had a fabulous goldfish pond built for Br____ as a birthday gift and it still sparkles and gurgles in their garden. B____'s death leaves a huge void in the world. It is truly a sin and a shame that only one of his fellow shareholders were moved to personally console his widow. He loved her to his last breath and would have been deeply saddened by their cold attitude. B_____ is survived by two siblings from whom he was estranged. The firm will be holding a Memorial Service in their office sometime on Monday, December 10, 2007. It is not known if they would welcome people from outside the firm and the firms prestigious client list. Br____ will not attend. B____ has been cremated and his remains will be placed in an exquisite wooden box which he loved and will remain with his grieving widow. From his birth to his death he was a most remarkable individual, unique and gifted in more ways than most humans. The world is diminished and made less interesting by his death. B____ E_____'s obituary was composed, written, and submitted by Br____ E____. All thoughts, opinions and declarations in it are ENTIRELY hers and do not reflect input from any other persons, LIVING OR DEAD, other than those presented as quotations.
posted by ColdChef at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

posted by Artw at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2012

The Late Show is a CBC obituary documentary program that celebrates “ the extraordinary life stories of deceivingly ordinary Canadians.” It's worth its own FPP, really, but is a fantastic elevation of the art of the obit into radio format.
posted by Shepherd at 9:46 AM on January 30, 2012

I like the idea of obituaries as celebrations of life, but I often find I don't like what we choose to celebrate about people's lives. It's frequently sort of like a resume, memberships, accomplishments, a list of hobbies; that seems like such a silly way to celebrate someone's life.

When my grandmother died, they put together an obituary much like that for her, but it made no sense. She'd been basically homebound for years and had never really had a job; her only real "accomplishment" in that sense was her family (which she had every reason to be proud of), but that got thrown in after a list of organizations she had once attended one meeting of. There was no real reason to include that list other than to make it look more like a "good" obituary.

Honestly, if I had written it would probably would read something like:

"NAME was a kind and loving woman and surprisingly non-racist for an 80 year old white woman from the South. Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren will all miss her"

That's really all it needed.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

As I try to point out to the families I serve, an obit is a statement of record. We can read obits written a hundred years ago, and hopefully a hundred years from now, people will be able to read the obits we write. I don't know that's entirely true, though. I think that more people read the obituaries we post on Facebook, rather than the ones we print in the newspaper. I worry what will happen to those Facebook posts a hundred years from now. Or even five years from now.
posted by ColdChef at 9:50 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

[BLAHBLAHBLAH] was awesome and influential and did many awesome things that you never heard of for some reason. But did you know they also did [THING1], [THING2], and [THING3]? [BLAHBLAHBLAH], [DESCRIPTIVENICKNAME] of the [THINGYOUCAREABOUT] has died.

There you go, about 5% of all Metafilter posts.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:28 AM on January 30, 2012

The Economist is another source of well-written obituaries, on people ranging from a man who didn't learn to read until he was 98 to the inventor of instant noodles.

If you read an obituary and you say, "I wish I'd met that person," that's a good obituary. All too often, though, obituaries follow the format that Bulgaroktonos described:
It's frequently sort of like a resume, memberships, accomplishments, a list of hobbies; that seems like such a silly way to celebrate someone's life.
I don't see why a person's life "resume" has to be at the center of his or her obituary. I'd rather read that they liked to get up at 4 and play solitaire for an hour before starting their day.

I wrote the obituary for a friend (an ex I stayed close to) who died of brain cancer at age 50. David had some "resume" events in his life -- fancy college, law school, high-powered job -- but when I wrote about him, what stood out to me was that six weeks before he died, while we were listening to an mp3 of "New York, New York," David tilted his head, closed his eyes halfway, and murmured, "Sinatra was pretty flat there."
posted by virago at 1:39 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

When my father died, I had the responsibility, along with a close family friend, of writing his obituary. The first thing I learned is how incredibly expensive they are to have printed in the newspaper, I think our relatively modest one ran about $800. The second thing I learned is that, at that price, we didn't really feel like we could say all the things we really wanted to say. Instead we took a more mechanistic approach: Decades or centuries from now, this may be the only first-hand accounting of his life, so let's get the details in and correct. And so we did: Place of birth, military service, employment history and brief listing of professional accomplishments, family members (living and dead), and so on. If you want to know why obituaries of the non-famous tend to read so formulaically, this might be an explanation.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:44 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good point about the limitations that cost imposes on the writing of obituaries, LastOfHisKind. The newspaper that ran my friend's obituary was a local, independent (non-chain) publication that doesn't -- yet -- charge for obituaries, so I was able to write at greater length than I otherwise might have.
posted by virago at 2:22 PM on February 2, 2012

« Older New JFK assassination tapes   |   The Muppets attack Fox News Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments