The dying art of obituary writing

A good obituary is not just a notification of death or a chronology of a life, it is – according to the dictionary – an appraisal of that life.

It can be tempting to portray a life of seamless progress – ‘already at Eton young Johnny was displaying the qualities that would make him a leader in his field”. Like phooey he was. All of us suffer knocks in our personal and professional lives and have made embarrassing gaffes. But, unless writing about a household name, I tend to question whether we learn anything from the more salacious tittle-tattle. And never trust unquestioningly the family’s account of Dad’s or Mum’s war.

A good obituary avoids speculation about the afterlife. As a journalist, how do you know that old Mrs Jones has ‘gone to be with the angels’or ‘answered St Peter’s call”? And it’s not news to say that she will be deeply missed: Saddam Hussein is deeply missed by his family.

Andrew McKie, obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph, once told me that the best obits ‘show, rather than tell”. Anecdotes bring an obit to life, so to speak. I’m always disappointed if I file a piece without the words ‘On one occasion”, even if it means omitting a hard-earned promotion to second deputy bottle washer.

Grieving widows love to talk and are invariably extremely helpful. Coaxing details out of them can sometimes uncover a real gem, such as the violinist who had a miniature railway in his garden and, after playing the Royal Festival Hall, would don his engine driver’s cap and go for a spin. A worthy but dull life can be enlivened on the page by the response to questions about hobbies, fads, travels, diets or other quirks. And it’s always good to speak to people who knew the subject in a different field.

Contrary to popular belief, an obituary is not an honour. It is the recording of a life that has, in some way, changed our world. For that reason most newspapers today don’t shy away from publishing obits of notorious criminals and major terrorist figures; their lives tell us something about our society.

Finally, although it is great to be reminded that the dead (and their estates) cannot sue for libel, never forget that their family and friends can. If he was a crook in business, make sure that he wasn’t in business with someone still living before you say so.

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