One of my favourite literary genres, and in my view one of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood, is the obituary. Speaking of literature … it was a premature French obituary of 1888 which perhaps led Alfred Nobel to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. How painfully aware of his public relations problem he must have become, regarding himself in an obituarist’s rendering as “the merchant of death” and seeing his life’s work summarized thusly: he “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
Do not confuse the obituary with the death notice. An obituary is an essay which undertakes the considerable task of representing a singular human life in summary form. When effectively rendered, an obituary conveys the complexity of character and discloses the relationship of an individual to her age. It is a narrative compiled by someone who has sifted through the pile to discern what is essential and what is incidental. A death notice announces the dates of birth and passing and lists the nearby relations, both living and deceased. Necessary and useful, it is a perfunctory affair, a thing which must be done, and so best to just get through it. Obituaries are as a rule written for public figures, and death notices for the rest of us. The assumption informing an obituary is that its subject is of both general interest and significance. Thus a death notice rarely strays from the template, whereas an obituary demands each time a fresh, singular approach.
I enjoy reading both obituaries and death notices. The death notice employs a severe, get-to-the-point approach, and in doing so it never fails to drive in the message that little matters in this world beyond one’s family. You may think your head is full of big ideas, your present of big problems, and your future of big prospects, but the death notices of everyone who has gone before you prove otherwise. The dead loved, and in turn were much loved by a few, and, objectively considered, a human life amounts to that and little more. The death notice is gloriously bullshit free, and so be it.
As I have already suggested, the obituary is about a life and not about a death. Nigel Starck, in his book Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary, states that obituaries first appeared in British newspapers in the early 1600s. The genre in any case was well established by the late 1800s, and it hardly matters to me when it first emerged. I am merely glad that it did. I derive great pleasure from a well-written account of a life considered objectively and in its totality. There ought to be in an obituary a rejection of the principle “speak no ill of the dead” — unsullied candour is the thing. We, each of us, have both positive and negative qualities, and in fact the two are often both inter-related and indeed inter-dependent. A human life articulated with honesty and in a full manner will deliver to the reader a satisfaction to be had no other way. After all, as human beings ourselves we are interested in all things human, and part of the attraction of an obituary is doubtless the subliminal curiosity we bear in relation to our own posthumous apprehension. What will they say about me when I am gone?
In all likelihood, nothing. For most of us, it is only as consumers that we will approach the obituary. A few have had (among them Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) the fortune of seeing theirs in print. Among the most well-known cases is that of Ernest Hemingway, reported by media as deceased in 1954. He is said by Aaron E. Hotchner (a writer and the partner of Paul Newman in the Newman’s Own product line) to have perused a collection of his obituaries each morning thereafter, until his death, a glass of champagne in hand. James Mellow suggests that Hemingway himself suspected his eventual awarding of a Nobel Prize had something to do with his premature obituaries and the considerable attention to his life and work which followed. An interesting speculation, and another good instance of the undeniable power of obituary.