The New Nasty Obituaries

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Feb. 28 2012 1:42 PM

The New O-Bitch-uaries

Can we wait a few hours before attacking the dead?

Jan and Stan Berenstain
Jan and Stan Berenstain

Photography © Random House Children's Books.

I understand the siren call of the contrarian position, the irrepressible desire to say the thing other people are too decent or cautious or conventional or polite to say, and yet I wonder if the right time to say that thing about someone is hours after you hear they have died. I wonder if the absolute opportune moment to attack a writer, say, is as their family plans a funeral, as their children experience that feeling Freud describes as being “torn up by the roots.”

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

Just yesterday, Slate’s Hanna Rosin, my own beloved editor, wrote: “The world today brings news that Jan Berenstain, co-author with her husband Stan, of the 45 years and running Berenstain Bears series for children, has passed on to a better world. As any right thinking mother will agree, good riddance.” She was talking about the cartoon bears, of course, and not Jan Berenstain herself, the small 88-year-old, with her bangs and glasses, photographed holding her special pens and special pad, still creating, still drawing in her ninth decade. Hanna was presumably not saying “good riddance” as in, it is good that Jan Berenstain suffered a stroke and died in her hospital bed, and the clever analysis of the ubiquitous children’s series that follows this flashy statement is entirely fair and well-reasoned. And yet one wonders, whatever strong emotions one has about the cartoon bears in a children’s book, could that bold and harsh “good riddance,” have been resisted the day Jan Berenstain’s death was announced?

Just as one tries not to wear fuchsia to a funeral, it seems that one might fruitfully reserve one’s more pointed critiques for another occasion. There is, however, an increasing fashion for these negative obituaries, this sharp summing up of dead people’s achievements in which they are found falling short, these personal attacks timed as the dead person’s possessions are still being retrieved in plastic bags by their relatives from the hospital.

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Rewinding a few months to Christopher Hitchens’ death, other contrarians felt stirrings of the same impulse. Somewhere Katha Pollitt woke up and had the feeling of delicious frisson: Here everyone is saying nice things about Christopher Hitchens, but she was courageous enough to say something nasty and critical and rigorous. To denounce “those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting.”To tell the world the important fact that Christopher was not, in fact, a fun or charming drunk.

And then there was the journal N+1, which also found the days after Hitchens’ death the perfect, opportune time to say that Very Serious People were not threatened or challenged by Hitchens’ fundamentally unserious intellect: “He was an average reasoner, not very rigorous or original.” Now it’s true that you and I have never heard of the writer of this obituary who is so much more rigorous and original a thinker than Christopher Hitchens, so dangerous and threatening to the Very Serious People, but that is not supposed to stop us from admiring his courage, in speaking out against a man who has just died. (It’s perhaps revealing that N+1 chose as their obituarist someone who had written previously on Hitchens about the “not infrequent hint that booze has befogged his brain,” and that his essays were “a tempest of inaccuracy, illogic and malice.”)

I loved Hitchens, and so may be biased and especially ruffled by these pieces, but I still wonder if obituaries are the right venue to air your condescension toward someone’s work, to analyze the question of whether someone was in fact as fun and charming a drunk as they are rumored to be.

I recognize that these and other writers are responding to the increasing pressure in the blogosphere to churn out something new, original, something with a little spark, a little surprise; I understand that the morning’s news is combed and gleaned for some little nugget to be original about, to show off and display the writer’s own special thoughts and ruminations, but would it be the worst thing in the world if death notices remained predictably respectful and straightforwardly journalistic and newsy? If the bloggers and ironists and professional contrarians were quiet for a few hours?

Those bold innovators of the nasty obituary, those brave nothing-is-sacred-ists, will view me as hopelessly sentimental and humorless and maybe even a dangerous and retrograde enemy of the First Amendment. The British, after all, have perfected the nasty obituary over the past few decades. But there is the fact that these writers devoted their short lives on earth to their work, and were loved, and now are gone, and time itself is indifferent and critical enough. John Updike wrote, right before his own death:

“The world is blanketed by foregone deaths,
Small beads of ego, bright with appetite,
Whose pin-sized prick of light winked out.”

I can’t help thinking that there is something monumental in a death, something worthy of a pause, a moment, a cessation of schadenfreude and gregarious noise. I can’t help thinking that we could, without too much inconvenience or suffering, wait a few days for the performance of our own cleverness.

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