When people ask what I'm reading these days, I do a little sash-twisting, dig my toe into the carpet, stall a while with "Um-uh, umm, well. . . ." No, no, I'm not reading bodice-busters, nor confessionals such as, "Help, Dr. Phil: I'm In Love with My Alien Abductor!" But the last time I answered that question, the response was unfeigned repugnance; the attitude matched the way I felt when my father would offer me his favorite nosh, pickled pigs' feet.
Some background: in 1992, I spent a sabbatical year in Hungary, teaching literature at a college of unpronounceable name. I was something of a newspaper junkie then, and had assumed there would be at least one good English-language newspaper on the newsstands in Szombathely. Wrong. Result--I had serious newsprint withdrawal for some weeks. Finally, a faculty colleague took pity and began putting in my office mailbox her copy of the London Daily Telegraph. Ravenous, I devoured every page. And discovered a new delight. In a word, obituaries.
The obituary as a literary genre was born in England in the mid-1980's, but even now, twenty years later, many American newspapers are still woefully behind the times and simply don't run samples of what I'll call The New Obit. Some U. S. papers, yes, but most, no. That's why I'm blogging on the subject today.
What is the standard U.S. obituary like? "So-and-So died [met his maker, returned to Jesus, was reunited with both ex-wives and three girlsfriends, etc.] He was born here, went to school there, served in the military yonder, worked at these jobs, and is survived by the following."
The standard obit bears a strong resemblance to a book report by a kid who didn't read the book, just the Cliff Notes.
The New Obit celebrates the life of the subject. There may be two sentences dealing directly with death per se: "So-and-So, who has died age 96, was a wrestler whose profession was grappling but whose passion was collecting the Mottled Yellow Sumerian Butterfly in every corner of the globe. . . . He is survived by his wife Angela and three daughters. " The writer of a good obit expends effort and intelligence in finding out what the life in question was truly about, and puts that information together with humor, detail, honesty and respect.
Most news headlines in today's papers, on TV and on the Internet are depressing if not downright gruesome.Here are three I took this past week from AOL--these are word for word.
* "9-11 Remains Used to Pave Roads"
*"I Snorted My Father, Rocker Admits"
* "Housewife Convicted of Frying Husband"
By contrast, New Obits celebrate courageous, or outrageous, lives of the famous, the infamous, and the so-called ordinary. Try on some of these opening lines:
*"Canon Edwyn Young, who has died aged 74, was one of the Church of England's most colourful priests and claimed to be the first-ever chaplain to a strip-tease club, officiating at the Raymond Revuebar in Soho."
*"Nesta Cox, known as 'the Nanny of Nanteuil,' who died in Blois in France aged 92, was brought up to believe in the indestructibility of the British Empire, although in the event she herself proved the more indestructible."
*"Abe Coleman, a Polish-born professional wrestler promoted as the Hebrew Hercules and Jewish Tarzan and credited in the 1930s with popularizing the drop-kick move, likened to a flying kick to the jaw, died March 28 at Meadow Park nursing home in Queens, N.Y. He was 101."
* "Cockie Hoogterp, who has died aged 96, certainly added to the gaiety of nations and enriched the public stock of harmless pleasure. She was invariably witty in conversation, sometimes wickedly so, and given to impromptu practical jokes. . . ."
These days, I start off my mornings by browsing the New Obits in newspapers such as the Guardian, The Boston Globe, The New York Sun, and the San Francisco Chronicle. There are always a few good laughs to be found, often some tears at heroism and courage, and almost always an upbeat sense of astonishment and pride in the human spirit. I've not found a better corrective for the depressing, distressing stuff that the media serves up. In my own college days, I majored in journalism, and had as mentors two Pulitzer Prize winning newspapermen turned professors. I've always been glad that Madame Fate shepherded me down a different path, for journalism today is not so inspiring a career as it once was. But if I were to have a second go at it, I'd want to write the New Obits.
Far from being repugnant, New Obits are uplifting and celebratory. Not pigs' feet at all. If you want to read more about the New Obits, there's a great book by Marilyn Johnson, published by HarperCollins and titled--what else--The Dead Beat. And for a marvelous collection from Britain, try The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries: A Celebration of Eccentric Lives, edited by Hugh Massingberd and published by Macmillan.