Obituaries: “oases of calm in a world gone mad”

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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“Almost every day,” writes Margalit Fox of the New York Times. “I am given a mystery to solve – the mystery of how a life was lived, and why that life, although it has run its course, matters vitally to us all.”

As senior writer on the obituaries desk, she has an “all-consuming, life-giving and never dull” line of work – “perhaps the strangest in American journalism but also one of the very best”.

The obituary pages of a newspaper, said Russell Baker, introducing an anthology of NY Times obits in 1997, offered “oases of calm in a world gone mad”.

To have your life recounted in the pages of the hallowed New York Times is to join on the world’s most exclusive posthumous clubs.

Says Fox: “As we often say to one another ruefully, running the Obituary department of The Times is like presiding over the admissions committee of the most selective college in the world.”

If you are a president, king or queen and you have just shuffled off this mortal coil, then you are a no-brainer. Chances are good, in fact, that we already have an advance obituary of you on file, requiring a reporter only to fill in the where, when and how before the article – long, rigorous and satisfyingly complex – appears …

(On occasion, the obituary writer who pre-wrote the piece will have died before the subject, leaving the draft unpublished, awaiting revision.)

Besides the monarchs and captains of industry, likely candidates for our page include another, lesser-known group. These are history’s backstage players who, working quietly, have nonetheless managed to reshape our culture – the men and women who have put enduring creases in the social fabric. And it is these unsung actors whom obit writers love best.

British obituary pages, on the whole, have been a little more eclectic. In 2007 – since which shrinking pagination has led some publication to curb their obit offerings – Brian Cathcart wrote in the New Statesman:

Literate, entertaining, surprising, diverse, thoughtful and often beautifully illustrated, they provide a daily challenge to the view that the upmarket papers have dumbed down. Instead, the newspaper obituary is experiencing a golden age, so that if you are distinguished or interesting in any way, there has never been a better time to die.

Among the most remarkable obituaries of recent times is one written by US jounrliast Sandor Polster, for US journalist Sandor Polster. Published in the Brunswick Times Record, the writer’s note began: “I decided it would be fun if my final writing assignment were my own obituary”

Back in the NY Times, Fox concludes:

Each day, it is our job to come to know such strangers intimately, inhaling their lives through telephone calls to their families, through newspaper and magazine profiles culled from electronic databases and through the crumbling yellowed clippings from the Times morgue that can fall to dust in our fingers as we read them.

In the course of the day we have learned not only how our subjects got from A to B to C in their lives – and how much of that progress was a product of free will and how much a result of pure blind fate – but also how, and why, they embodied the age in which they lived.

That, in essence, is the deep, sometimes bittersweet pleasure of the job – the chance to see, through the lens of personal history, how the world, for better or worse, got to be the way it is.

And that, too, is the very essence of obits, the journalistic genre that, more than any other, deals in the very stuff of life.

And if you like the things, this Tublr site keeps tabs on the good ones.

See also: Ten of the best opening lines in news reports

Ten of the funniest newspaper corrections

Goldmine or gutter? The debate over online comments

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