Originally created 10/28/03

Obit pages have some of the liveliest writing



Did someone ask, "O death, where is thy sting?" It is in residence on the obituaries desk at London's Daily Telegraph, one of Britain's leading newspapers. In the past, the obits desk was the Siberia where failing hacks got banished in their dotage and young reporters learned the importance of being polite and spelling names correctly. But over the past 15 years, led by the revolutionaries of death at the Telegraph, the obituary has quietly blossomed.

The newspaper can, of course, produce a dignified tribute, as it did when Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope died this summer. But a fine malicious wit also often emerges. When Kathleen Winsor, best known for writing the bodice-ripper, "Forever Amber," died in May, for instance, the Telegraph obituary quoted one critic who likened reading a Winsor book to "sinking into a vat of whale blubber" and another who called a Winsor volume "the most depressing event in publishing since 'Mein Kampf."' In the same spirit, the Telegraph once remembered an Australian politician "for his keenness to enter beer-belly competitions, his habit of stirring his tea with his finger, and his regular nomination as one of Australia's worst-dressed men."

In the newfangled obit, the lives being commemorated are not necessarily newsworthy by traditional standards, though they are frequently colorful. Simply put, "this is not your mother's obituary. Or, good grief, maybe it is your mother's obituary," writes Richard Conniff in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine. In papers from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Denver Post to The Sydney Morning Herald, the obituaries page has become the unfunereal home to some of the liveliest writing in daily journalism.

For instance, this razzle-dazzle lead in The New York Times: "Harold C. Fox ... who claimed credit for creating and naming the zoot suit with the reet pleat, the reave sleeve, the ripe stripe, the stuff cuff and the drape shape that was the stage rage during the boogie-woogie rhyme time of the early 1940s died on Sunday at his home in Siesta Key, Fla. He was 86."

Where obituaries once faithfully obeyed the old rule to speak only good of the dead, they now often display an unflinching frankness. These days the dead get served up with "less fantasy and more history," says Nigel Starck, a University of South Australia scholar with a special interest in obituaries. The Economist once noted one case contrasting the old style with the new: a British newspaper published a tribute downplaying a deceased banker's ties to the Nazi government in wartime Germany. The Telegraph, on the other hand, reported that the banker had attended board meetings of a poison gas manufacturer and had been convicted in absentia as a war criminal.

Frankness about the deceased is particularly tempting for the British press because the strict limits imposed by libel laws there end at death, meaning the obituary may be the first (and last) chance people get to say how they really felt about the old buzzard after all. In death as in comedy, timing counts. If your life is a mess, Telegraph obituarist Andrew McKie suggests, book your death for the week after Christmas, when so many other people die that the newspapers might not have room to dwell on the sordid details. If you crave attention, on the other hand, die in August, which generally yawns vast and empty as the grave.