Writing obituaries can be strangely life-affirming

There’s nothing morbid about writing obituaries

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

In my line of work I sometimes owe a cock to Asclepius. The ancient Greeks believed that a sacrificial offering to Asclepius, the god of good health, could buy you time. Perhaps it worked in the case of Boris Johnson. On the night he was taken into intensive care, I had the digital team of the Times breathing down my neck. They wanted to know if I, the paper’s obituaries editor, had an obit ready to go straight up online, ahead of the print version. I was up until midnight making sure we had, updating and recasting our existing one, trying to get the tone right. The cock may have been metaphorical, but it was offered all the same.

It sounds a bit ghoulish, I know, but it’s odd how detached you get, especially in this case as I know Boris a little — we’re the same age, were colleagues for a while and even played on the same cricket team. Perhaps the only way to explain it is that obituaries are supposed to be life–affirming, not gloomy or morbid; elegantly written short biographies that are full of colour, felicities and, where appropriate, humour. Through anecdote and illuminating personal detail we try to tell the story of a life and give insight into character. In addition to the Who’s Who facts and dates, we want to know: what made the subject tick? What quirks might help them come back to life on the page? The judge who had a penchant for silk underwear… the army officer who took a rolled-up umbrella into battle in case it rained… the surgeon who was so competitive at board games he once made his grandchildren cry by sending a Monopoly board flying across the room.

Obviously, there is no shortage of colourful material to work with on Boris. The same is true of Donald Trump. The trouble is, in normal circumstances, it is pointless doing too much in advance for such people because their story keeps moving on.
Even after a politician retires, public opinion can change between the time the obit is written and its appearance in print, Ronald Reagan and George Bush being examples. Will history be kinder to Trump than at present? To Tony Blair?

What I enjoy about the obituary as a genre is that the casting is so unpredictable, with everyone from rock stars and mafia bosses to admirals and archbishops rubbing shoulders on the page. Also it is a time to reflect on a life and assess whether the person was right or wrong in the handling of their public affairs. It is tempting to confer sainthoods on the recently departed, out of respect, but obituaries should be balanced accounts that are deadpan in style, not bland hagiographies that only serve to diminish the memory of the subject. When does the white lie become part of family legend, or the tall tale told at Christmas merge with reality? One problem we occasionally encounter is that later wives or husbands want to erase all mention of earlier ones.

Sometimes it goes the other way. We recently ran an obit of Valerie Pettit, an unsung heroine who had never spoken about her work as the senior MI6 officer who master-minded the KGB colonel turned spy Oleg Gordievsky’s dramatic escape from the USSR in 1985. Instead she had always maintained she was ‘just a secretary’. In death the truth about her could finally be told.

It’s strange how often two big names die on the same day, as with Sir Stirling Moss (racing driver and self-styled ‘crumpet chaser’) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (who died of Covid-19) last month. I rather like these juxtapositions. Tessa Jowell died the same day as Dennis Nilsen; Stephen Hawking the same day as Jim Bowen. While it can be exhilarating, it can also leave you feeling jittery, especially when you’re on deadline. The week Princess Diana died, a frazzled Glaswegian picture editor was checking the wires in the Telegraphnewsroom. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he exclaimed indignantly. ‘Now Mother fucking Teresa’s gone and died!’

When the pandemic started, we on the obits desk thought that we had better strap ourselves in for a bumpy ride. But while there have been many scares — Tom Hanks, Prince Charles and J.K. Rowling, for example — the Covid celeb mortality rate hasn’t so far been high: the comedian Eddie Large, the ’66 World Cup squad footballer Norman Hunter, and the Marquess of Bath, he of the Longleat wifelets, are among them, but there haven’t been too many. For us it has been no more or less busy than normal.

If some good has come out of this plague stalking our land it is that it has made us talk and think a little more about death. The Victorians, with their love of memento mori, had a much healthier attitude to it than we do. Would they have had a hysterical grief-fest in the way that many of our fellow countrymen did when Princess Diana died, seemingly unable to cope with death either as a concept or a fact of biology? We treat the subject as a taboo. Many of us can’t even bring ourselves to say the word, which is why you end up with unlovely euphemisms such as ‘passed away’. But it is important to think about death because it gives our lives meaning, shape and circumference. We have no choice but to come to terms with it as best we can, because no one gets out alive. I keep thinking about another recent obit we ran. It was of Ram Dass, the hippy psychologist. ‘Death is absolutely safe,’ he said. ‘Like taking off a tight shoe.’

On the Times, we always try to give the cause of death in the bit in bold at the end of an obit, just because it seems a reasonable thing for the reader to be curious about, especially during a global pandemic. One day I heard a colleague who had been struggling to find the cause all afternoon say to a caller on the phone: ‘Arterial aneurism, that’s brilliant!’

But we don’t dwell on it. It’s all slightly academic anyway because, as David Hockney said the other day, the cause of death is always the same: birth.

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