Obits, British and American.

Bringing out the dead.
May 15 2002 5:45 PM

Deadline Journalism

Obits, British and American.

(Continued from Page 1)

Of course, the insistence on subjective obituaries sometimes contributes to a nostalgia that to the American ear sounds tinny and unnecessary. Hence the Guardian's recent sendoff to a not-exactly-famous Oxford University Press editor named Kim Walwyn, who died young of breast cancer: "She continued to be avid for new experiences, in her 40s learning to ice skate, and becoming a competent and graceful horserider." Let us not speak ill of the dead, certainly, but one can almost hear the New York Times copy desk querying: "How do we know that she was graceful?"

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There have been American obituary writers who favor a more British approach. From 1995 to 2000, when he died at 60 of abdominal cancer, Robert McG. Thomas, one of the last of the great old-time rewrite men, was a full-time writer for the Times' obituary page, which he graced with pieces that weren't quite nasty, but embraced oddball characters and celebrated them with an un-Timesian wit. A collection of Thomas' best obituaries, 52 McGs., was published late last year.

Thomas' distinctive style stemmed in part from the fact that he preferred working on a hasty deadline to assembling massive clip files on those presumed to die soon. A former colleague noted that Thomas did his best work under time pressure: "If they didn't give him something until three o'clock, they'd have something great by eight."

My favorite "McG." was prompted by the January 1998 death of Emil Sitka, the straight man in many of the Three Stooges movies. In his second paragraph, Thomas wryly wrote: "Since the death of the last of the Stooges, Joe DeRita, in 1993, Mr. Sitka had been widely regarded by the Stooges' dedicated fans as the last living link to a madcap, slapstick era that to virtually everyone else's dismay shows no signs of going away."

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