The Art of the Obituary

In MemoryWhen I began to read Alden Whitman’s compilation of obituaries in The Obituary Book, I was taken by the historic nature of his work. Published in 1971, Whitman must have felt the same way about his writing when he died a mere nineteen years after publication. For instance, his first sentence in the introduction begins, “Every day in the world 146,000 people die. In the United States alone there is one death every sixteen and a half seconds for a total of 5,236 a day.”

Today, the crude death rate for the whole world is currently about 8.24 per 1000 per year according to the current CIA World Factbook. This means that – roughly – 150,000 people die per day around the globe. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control in a preliminary report [PDF] for 2007, a total of 2,423,995 people died per day in the U.S. Divided by 365 days per year, the grand total of the number of U.S. deaths per year now is 6,641. Of course, there are more people living today than there were in 1971, and this makes Whitman’s points all that more relevant: how to honor the dead with an obituary when there is limited newspaper space for that effort?

Today, online memorial services such as Virtual Memorials, Memory Of and Remembered Forever are replacing newspaper obituary services in many instances. Obituaries once were free services for newspapers, offered to the community as a way to be understood as a beneficial commodity. But, today obituaries cost money, and only the individuals and their families who can afford a lengthy memorial can afford such a service. Why not use Internet services when — for the same price — your memorial is perceived as lasting into eternity?

Whitman might agree, as he stated that death — the ‘great leveler’ — obviously levels some a great deal more than others. An obituary in The New York Times, even thirty years ago, was a luxury reserved for celebrities with solid foundations. Think Presidents of the United States, the first to transplant a human heart, a winner of a Nobel Prize, a person who altered the course of the arts, entertainment stars or captains of finance and industry. At the same time, social standing played a part in whether or not your obituary was included in The New York Times, because — after all — fame is relative.

Whitman admitted that, to be included in The New York Times’ obituary columns, one also could be infamous…but “not a piker.” In other words, if you were a Lizzie Borden, an Al Capone or a Legs Diamond, you could make the celebrated pages. It would help if you were a best-selling author or an eccentric cat owner who could recite the list of Popes backward to St. Peter. Controversy also counted in a person’s aim to make it to the Times’ obituary pages…at this point, Whitman mentions Joe McCarthy, the man who helped Whitman achieve his own controversial claim to fame during the McCarthy Era. Whitman stated, “[Controversy] may be risky, for the praise one receives may be offset by the brickbats that are almost certain to come his way…The chances are that they will die with generous space [in the obituary columns], but not all the flowers will be sweet.”

But, according to Whitman, there were ‘rules’ about how to be excluded from the The Times obituary column, just as there were ‘rules’ for inclusion. The poor, those who worked in occupations low on the social scale, those whose names never made print in life or those who belonged to certain ethnic groups were guaranteed a road not taken in the Times. “Some blacks, of course,” stated Whitman, “Do these days [make the obituary column], but they have to be exceptionally well known.”

Remember that this book was published a mere two years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and almost a full decade before women’s history was taught in colleges and universities. While the taxi driver, the construction worker, the housewife and mother tended to be ignored in death by most larger print newspapers, they also received short shrift in smaller local newspapers during that time period. I know, because I was assigned to obituary writing when I first entered the newspaper business. How much can a person write about a housewife or a janitor, after all?

In the new age of the memoir, it now can be said that plenty can be written about a person during life as well as after death. But, the odd thing about obituaries is that — while they are often the most read section of a newspaper — they often give short shrift to memorials of those in their communities who have died.

In sum, there were three types of obituaries included in most big-city newspapers at that time. Whitman explained:

“Those of a paragraph or two that record the passing of persons deemed of slight prominence or interest either locally or from afar; those of up to a column in length that deal with men and women of greater apparent eminence or accomplishment; and those running up to four full pages (reserved in The Times for Presidents of the United States) that recount lives whose significance is believed to merit extensive treatment. The first two kinds of obits are, in The Times‘s practice, ordinarily supplied by the wire services or the bureaus or produced on day or night rewrite. Most of the longer ones are hand-crafted in advance, although there are occasions when one has to be written with an eye on the clock. The explanation for this is quite simple: it is impossible to anticipate every big death.”

Whitman admitted, with his role of the first advance obituary writer for The Times, that he tried to keep advance copies of obituaries on those whose careers and lifeworks were “substantially behind them and on whom, therefore, little updating” was required upon death. Whitman also stated that top priority to space within The Times always went to the President of the United States.

Stayed tuned, as on Friday this week I’ll finish Whitman’s thoughts, tell you what it was like to write an obituary for a local newspaper, and point you to some resources for writing an obituary. These resources are important to funeral home directors, deathcare practitioners and to anyone who is living who wants to be remembered upon death. It seems, today as it was yesterday, that most individuals need to take the honoring of a life into their own hands. Few, if any of us, after all, will have the honor or the headache of becoming the President of the United States.

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