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Too many people died this week - too many people loved dearly by friends of mine, anyways. My friendslist has been full of obituaries and grief.

It's almost cliché that some people read the obituary section religiously in their local newspaper. Part of following the local news is knowing who mourns, and who is no longer around for friendship, charity, shopping, or irritation. The cast of characters is at least as important as what they're doing. Obituaries accord significance beyond ceremony to the passing of a loved one. It's a chance to tell the world how amazing he or she was, what wonders they accomplished, with which people they entertwined their life across the generations.

Obituaries are a novice's genre. Only the occasional journalist or someone who has lost too many loved ones will end up needing to write many obituaries in a life. It is a form of prose learned and practiced in grief, which makes it a very odd little genre of writing indeed. Birth announcements are comparatively easy: they're composed of statistics. A newborn child has rarely accomplished anything else. An obituary, however, records a life lived, however long, however short. It's a paean to accomplishment, limited by the necessary brevity of a newspaper's published word counts. The author wants to do their subject justice, but rarely has experience in the composition form in which they're writing.

I don't mean to say that most obituaries are poorly written. I don't read many of them, and those I've read lately have been written by erudite individuals in honor of much-loved relatives. But this is one genre of writing in which I wouldn't want to wish accomplishment to anyone but a journalist.

The thing is, I've never thought of obituaries as a formal prose form before, but it is. There are rules which govern its form, its length, its content. Most of us have - one way or another - read a decent sampling of the genre, and have a sense for it.

Two things struck me today about the obituary genre.

Firstly, it must be a very young one. It presumes a universality of literacy which did not exist until the nineteenth century. It requires a literate, historically-minded survivor in every family. It requires the enabling of cheap, widespread local publications, generally newspapers, occasionally magazines. Obituaries are temporally-bounded: to make sense, they must be published shortly after a death is known of.

Secondly, of course its roots must lie in biography more generally. Biography is a much less bounded genre, of which obituaries are a subset. But biography is not constrained by time. Biographies can be written of those still living and those who died thousands of years ago. Encyclopedia entries frequently resemble obituaries, but without the immediacy, and with a different set of rule constraints. So do short biographies, such as those I spent part of today compiling.
Agostino Ramelli. b. 1531. d. c. 1610. Italian military engineer who spent his career working for Gian Giacomo de' Medici, the Marquis de Marignan; and the Duc d'Anjou, the eventual Henri III of France. Author of Diverse and Artificial Machines (Self-published). Relatives unknown.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 5th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
I love this obituary, once published in the New York Times.

HANSEN - Stanley.

...and the Lord cried out to his flock, "I need a master framer, who can also cut a lot of mat openings." There was a great deal of murmuring ... then two voices were heard, "Lord, get Stanley Hansen."

The Lord said, "who spoke?"

"I am Sylvan Cole and this is Arthur Brown. Stanley worked for me at Associated American Artists."

Arthur Brown said, "Stanley was the best mat cutter Arthur Brown & Bro. ever had. He's been doing his job for sixty years."

The Lord said "Stanley I need you this week."

Stanley said "Dot, I got to go, I have a big job and they need me."
(Peter A. Brown).
Mar. 6th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
That's wonderful!
Mar. 9th, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC)
humble correction
I just realized that I wasn't paying attention. The outstanding mat-maker's name is Stanley Hansen, not Brown. Sorry!
Mar. 7th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
Stanley Brown and Sylvan Cole
What a small world. Sylvan Cole was my dealer at Associated American Artists in NY for sixteen years. He later was an independent dealer selling classic American 20th century prints. He was revered as the grand-daddy of the American print world. Since we also bought some prints from him, we may well have a Stanley Brown mat or two.
Mar. 8th, 2007 08:50 am (UTC)
Re: Stanley Brown and Sylvan Cole
wow, what a coincidence! I didn't know any of the people mentioned in the obit, it's just one of my favourites. So simple, and I love the last line; it gives such a sense of what the man must have been like.
Mar. 8th, 2007 08:59 am (UTC)
Re: Stanley Brown and Sylvan Cole
I recently helped a friend, recently widowed, and who was not computer-savy, edit an obit that her sons had written for their late father. This man had a long lifetime of community service and honors. The obit the sons wrote was very long and the deceased's less-sentimental wife decided that it had to be cut down. I came to realize how much the economics of newspapers play into what gets printed in an obituary. Think of it as specialty advertising. An obituary contributes to the income stream of a newspaper. A column-length costs at least $500. This one started out threatening to cost $700 and we got it down to $400. The photo is extra.
Mar. 5th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling that obituaries are an older genre, but that they were generally only for the 'important' people. I could be wrong, of course. But I think there is a real change in how obituaries are written once newspapers start taking contributions from family members. It's then that you get the separation of professional obituaries -- lists of accomplishments and memoirs written in a way that goes back to panegyric and/or a written eulogy -- and the imitation (often without the understanding of the purpose and literary tradition) of the style by and for the people who have/had a personal interest.

In my own experience, the writing of obituaries can also play very seriously into family politics.
Mar. 5th, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
As I was informed about a month ago, my great-aunt Janette had/has the delicate task of writing my grandfather's obit, and the even more delicate task of finding out whether he ever got married to his second partner Betty, following his divorce from my grandmother (it's not that my branch of the family weren't on speaking terms with them, it's just that we're not good at asking direct questions, especially about personal matters.)
Mar. 5th, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
My stepmother wrote my grandmother's obit. It was the most godawful thing EVER. But it was one of those things where she was allowed to do it because she would have felt slighted ("oh, you're not real family" "Let the college-educated family members write it"), and my father would have felt slighted on her behalf, had we not gone along with it. All it really showed was how little she and my dad knew my grandmother, and how important middle-class appearances were to them.
Mar. 6th, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling that obituaries are an older genre

I found a seventeenth-century example a few months back, then on open online access but now available only by subscription or purchase:
"The Character, Lately Published beyond the Seas, of an Eminent Person, not Long Since Dead at Tholouse, Where He Was a Councellor of Parliament",
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 1 (1665-6), pages 15-16. The subject of the obituary is still remembered today, but that title does not give much clue as to why. However, there's a Wikipedia article on him here.
Mar. 6th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
I'm making a misleading claim. The Great and the Good have always been memorialized in text and sculpture. Wall paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs serve the purpose of commemorating major life events, among other content.

Who constituted the "Great and Good" has become more democratic in relatively recent centuries, until it's the accepted norm now (and has been for perhaps the last century?) that everyone deserves to be remembered uniquely and individually. It's the current universality of obituaries, at least the Western world I'm familiar with, whose history I was more specifically pondering.
Mar. 6th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)
I'm particularly interested in the universalization of obituaries - we all deserve to have one written about us, something not always true of the genre.
Mar. 5th, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC)
Another subgenre of obit that always used to fascinate me was the newspaper In Memory notice, placed every year or every decade, after someone's death, intriguing me with the implication that they were held in more than usual respect or affection by their survivors. The saddest one I ever saw was a few months ago in a small-town Québec newpaper, for an infant who had died in the 1940s or 'fifties- since it was not a multiple-of-ten anniversary, I suppose the family must run that blurred photo of their baby every single year, generation after generation.

Alternately, an In Memory can be placed for a historical figure, like a mini-biography - I once saw one for Richard the III ("died on this day defending his crown against the userper"), placed by (of course) the Richard III Society.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 6th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
And of course Chesterton's comment that journalism is the art of announcing "Lord Jones Dead" to people who never knew that Lord Jones had been alive.

This is a frustrating thing about widespread memorials when someone particularly interesting dies. If I missed the initial fact of their existence in the first place, it equally means I missed out on any chance I may have had to appreciate them while they were alive and able to respond to correspondence. In my life and for me, this is more true of scholars than it is of most categories of professions.
Mar. 6th, 2007 12:56 am (UTC)
I always really enjoyed the obits in the Boston Herald. I am fascinated by reading about the rather extraordinary lives of rather ordinary people, and a good obit writer distills a century into a couple of paragraphs. They'd better be good paragraphs. Sometimes they are.
Mar. 12th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC)
My dad and stepmother both read the obituaries religiously, and have done so for decades. I admit that I don't really understand why they do so.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )