Culture Watch: Have you ever wondered about the history of obituaries? Wonder no more!
N. Joseph Woodland, inventor of the bar code, is seen here -- according to the NYT caption that accompanied his December 2012 obit -- "explaining his prototype scanner for products with bar codes."
Now and then you stumble across a piece that not only articulates a question you didn't even realize you had but proceeds to answer it, and perhaps even answer it as spectacularly well as Molly Birnbaum's "The Perpetually Dying Art of the Small-Town Obituary," another great find on the Atlas Obscura website. Actually, the head is much too limited. While Molly has fascinating things to say about "the small-town obituary," a form she plied herself in her first journalism job out of J-school, her subject is in fact the obituary form itself, as practiced in the past and the increasingly online-dominated present, leading to obvious speculation about its future.
Here's Molly's account of her baptism in obituary-writing, "at a tiny local paper in Northern California."
I didn’t know this until I got there, but this paper was one of the few, and one of the last, perhaps, to publish long, reported obituaries for the common man, woman, and, even, child. Writing them became one of my primary tasks. The work was rewarding but difficult -- I will never forget doing a two-page spread about the 9-year-old girl who drowned in a creek while having a picnic with her mom, for instance. I read reams of letters, diaries, and yellowed news clippings so old they crumbled in my hands, visited the homes of bereaved families, tracked down old photo albums -- all to tell the stories of humans I would never know. I loved it.This is an aspect of obituary history that I myself knew hardly anything about, having lived almost entirely in large cities (Baltimore, Milwaukee, and NYC) where I doubt that the daily papers we read were doing this sort of thing, at least not in my lifetime.
My own relationship to the obituary probably developed as I settled in as a habitual daily reader of the NYT and got used to the mix of long, usually mostly pre-written obits for really famous people and shorter pieces, probably slapped together on the spot, of less famous people who had, you know, "popped up" dead. As we transitioned into the online era, it became possible to count on a selection of "reported obituaries," as I do when I cobble my own odd (as they usually are) remembrances of the departed in this space.
NOTE THAT I SPEAK HERE AS THE WRITER
OF A GRAND TOTAL OF ONE (1) NYT OBIT
It was of the Chilean-born tenor Ramón Vinay, who died in January 1996, during my short time as a classical-music stringer for the daily paper. The news must have come through on a day when I happened to be in the office and was nominated for the task. What I remember most is that, while I was provided with clippings of everything about him that had appeared in the paper, what I really wanted as a remembrance of this distinguished artist was a quote from the great critic Conrad L. Osborne, in a critical discography of the then-extant recordings of Verdi's Otello, to the effect that if you got through the oddities of Vinay's vocal production, you could get to the soul of Otello.
Ramón Vinay as Otello
In the normal course of things at the NYT, it would have been expected that a descriptive quote or quotes would be plucked from the NYT clips, but that certainly wasn't my plan. Somehow, though, my remembered paraphrase of what CLO had written didn't seem adequate for a NYT obituary. Based on the deadline I was given, I determined that I might have just enough time to race to the Lincoln Center library (and back to the office), hoping I could track down the 1963 issue of High Fidelity in which the quote had appeared. (Luckily, I happened to know the exact issue, so I didn't have to worry about any further source-searching.)
To my surprise, if not utter amazement, this nutty scheme worked. At the library I found the appropriate bound volume of HF issues, copied out the quote (I couldn't get the bound volume to open flat enough for photocopying), and then was able to incorporate it in the obit -- which, come to think of it, I guess you could look up!
[If you want to hear Ramón Vinay capturing the soul of Otello, or however CLO put it (I should really look it up), I've already made an audio clip of the Act III monologue "Dio! mi potter scalar," which I think we'll hear in a "Sunday Classics snapshots" post this week with some other performances.]
"CAPTIVATED" BY "THE OBITUARY FORM"
Molly owns up to something that borders on obsession with obituaries as far back as she can remember.
Upon entering parties or business meetings, my mind would flash to what the obituary would be like for the person in front of me. (In my defense, the interest was also literary. They are kind of the ultimate in storytelling.) My mom traces these thoughts back to a serious car accident, about ten years ago. “You are very aware that the end could happen at any time,” she says.And she ranges both forward and backward from her days ("not that long ago") writing obituaries.
Going forward, clearly the form and business of obituaries have clearly been transformed by the drastic shrinkage of newspapers and by the rise of digital media, notably social media.
With Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, we are not only able to consume more media, but are able to create more media, media that narrates our lives the way we want it to be narrated—in effect, we have more control over our own life story now than ever.
And this translates to our death story. Today, instead of objective, reported obituaries or even paid, family-written eulogies printed in newspapers, there are sites like legacy.com—which publishes family- or even self-written obituaries online, complete with a guest book for comments—and myebit.com, which allows you to “create a free custom memorial at the world’s largest memorial site.” In February of this year, Facebook changed its policies, allowing you to designate a friend or family member to execute your Facebook “estate,” managing your account after you’ve died.
"It's all very soft and loving," Molly quotes Dr. Nigel Starck, author of Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary. "But it's untrustworthy and full of lies. It's just untrue. It's rubbish. But people want to express their grief. You cannot trust them as a historical source."
Of course, the advent of those "objective, reported obituaries" Molly referred to is itself a fairly modern phenomenon. It took a lot of doing to transform either sensationalist or elegiac yarns into a serious form of journalism, an attempt to give some kind of honest accounting of the person's life -- which is often not at all what the departed's family, friends, and admirers are looking for.
Molly traces the twists and turns in this evolution, and eventually comes to a crucial figure in the story of obituaries: Alden Whitman, "who wrote obituaries in the New York Times from 1965 to 1976.
He viewed them as feature writing, as biographies, and was famously profiled in 1966 by Gay Talese in an Esquire story called “Mr. Bad News.”And she talks to the NYT's current obituatry champ, Margalit Fox, author of "more than 1,200 obituaries in her 11 years at the job."
“For an obituary writer there is nothing worse than to have a world figure die before his obituary is up-to-date,” Talese wrote. “It can be a harrowing experience, Whitman knows, requiring that the writer become an instant historian, assessing in a few hours the dead man’s life with lucidity, accuracy, and objectivity."
And, for some papers -- especially larger papers like the New York Times, the Economist, the Guardian -- this remains true today. Obituaries are objective features, written by journalists.
Her job, she says, is to maintain objectivity. I asked her if families, especially today in the digital age, ever try to influence the story. Sometimes, but certainly not always, she said. “What happens, too, is that you do get a sense of which people are trying to control the narrative, families trying to stage manage a story,” she noted, “And very occasionally you get a sixth sense of families trying to do it.” When that happens, she “gently but firmly” puts the families on notice—no eulogies, none of the “flowery encomiums in small town papers, where everyone was a saint and everyone died surrounded by people they loved.”
Not every grieving widower or granddaughter takes kindly to that line of thought.
“I’ve been called a bitch, a bad journalist, every name in the book. But when you calm down and listen to the message again, you realize the family is not actually identifying any issue of fact that you got wrong, it’s simply that what they wanted was a flowery eulogy and what they got was a news story,” she said.
Fox often writes of quirky contenders in history, stories of men and women who changed the world, perhaps only in tiny ways, written as a story, a biography, a fully formed narrative. I still think about the obituary she wrote in 2012 of the man who invented the bar code, a mechanical engineer in training, who sat on the beach and ran his fingers in the sand and had an idea. “The result adorns almost every product of contemporary life, including groceries, wayward luggage and, if you are a traditionalist, the newspaper you are holding.”
EVENTUALLY MOLLY SEGUES INTO A SUBJECT . . .
. . . that has hardly anything to do with obituaries. "Thankfully, though," she writes, "obituaries aren’t the only record of someone’s life," and she's off on a personal account I found fascinating in its own right.
My grandmother is now 96 years old. She lives in a nursing home near me in Boston. Fifteen years ago, she suffered a stroke. It paralyzed the majority of her left side, and left her wheelchair bound, though relatively mentally intact. The last few years, however, she has descended into a curious form of dementia—a sort of rational dementia. She tells stories. Long stories. Stories about her life. And, none of them are true.
In reality, my grandmother grew up in the “borscht belt” of upstate New York, daughter of Polish immigrants who opened a hotel. She didn’t go to college, or ever hold a job, like many women in her generation. She married young, and had three kids – including my father, her youngest. Her marriage to my grandfather was glamorous. He made a lot of money. They lived in a beautiful, large house in the nice part of Middletown, NY, and threw parties people talked about for weeks afterward. But it wasn’t a happy marriage. I grew up hearing rumors of cheating, of fighting, of anger.
The stories my grandmother tells about her life now, eight years after the death of my grandfather, are not disjointed or confusing. There are concrete details, albeit completely fabricated details, which repeat themselves from story to story. Timelines seem clear. Narratives have logical flow. She tells stories about working in the dress department at Macy’s, and starting a charity to send young students to medical school. For a while she talked about her work for the rights of the elderly, traveling all over the country, she said, to give speeches in their honor—including a talk to the members of the Supreme Court. Last year, at Passover, she told me she would be starting at Harvard Law School in the fall.
I find these stories fascinating and sad, like I am listening to my grandmother rewrite her own life in her final years —a lucid dream world where she, perhaps, did what she wanted, not what she felt she should.
When I see her, I think of the obituary a journalist would write of her life. And then I think of the one I would give her myself.