Obits, British and American.

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

Deadline Journalism

Obits, British and American.

While staying in Los Angeles in April, I visited the grave of Mel Blanc in a cemetery called Hollywood Forever. Aside from the perfunctory birth and death dates, the headstone of the voice of Porky Pig delivers a single line: "That's All, Folks."

It's rare that a subject's life provides such a seamless epitaph on the occasion of his or her death. The sloppy task of reconciling a life to the facts of death falls almost exclusively to newspaper obituary writers. These undersung journalists must provide history's judgment under time pressure which, under the circumstances, acquires an additional meaning: the deadline.

Despite the seeming universality of the form, I've been struck, living in London for the last two years, how different British obituaries are from American ones. Consider the last newspaper rites offered for the British journalist Graham Mason. He was described in the first sentence of an April 11 DailyTelegraph obituary as "the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses, the pub in Soho where, in the half century after the Second World War, a tragicomedy was played out nightly by its regulars."

A classic of the genre ran in 1989, also in the Telegraph, upon the death of Lt. Col. Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport, a longtime Conservative politician who was said to have had the loudest voice in Parliament. The paper noted that his voice's "stentorian tones from a sedentary position—more closely akin to barks and growls than accepted human speech—tended to be employed in interjections or in questions rather than speeches." The Telegraph also asserted: "Bromley-Davenport—who had, perhaps, a somewhat simpliste view of politics—laid no claims to intellectual prowess or political ambition. His vocal contributions in the chamber generally reflected either shock at what he perceived to be the latest socialist outrage, or unqualified loyalty to his own party."

It's impossible to imagine such sendoffs appearing in any respectable American newspaper. They are too frank, too judgmental, too, well … mean. Obviously, British journalists believe the obituary serves a different function than it does in America. It is a chance for brutal revelations, a final laying to rest of hard truths.

It has not always been this way. For most of the 20th century, the dominant paper for quasi-official British obituaries was the London Times, where formality bordered on stiffness. But when the paper stopped publishing during a strike in the 1970s, it encouraged the Telegraph to grab a piece of the obituary franchise. Hugh Massingberd, who has written and edited Telegraph obituaries for decades, says that he decided "to dedicate myself to the chronicling of what people were really like through informal anecdote, description, and character sketch, rather than merely trot out the bald curriculum vitae." Shortly thereafter, the daily Independent launched, with an "appreciation" section of the newly deceased, and a kind of obituary battle has been waged ever since. That competition is governed by the survival of the flippest.

By contrast, the New York Times and most American newspapers treat obituaries primarily as news stories. The Times always includes the cause of death near the top of the article and almost always includes the age of the deceased in the headline. The British broadsheet obituary more resembles an essay tacked onto a tombstone: The headline is usually just the person's name, with a one-line description, and then his birth and death dates at the very end. The cause of death is optional.

The news-versus-essay distinction points to a larger one: the different expectations for news stories in the United States and the United Kingdom. It's well known that almost all American obituaries of figures who've been in the public eye for decades are drafted in advance. It's less well known that such drafts must be constantly updated, and that they often involve slightly ghoulish interviews with the not-yet-dead. (One Times writer noted in a 1985 essay that he wrote no fewer than four drafts of Orson Welles' obituary, shifting the focus each time, from Welles' radio and stage career, to his Hollywood success, to his success in Europe, and finally to his late-career decline.) As such, American obituaries increasingly acquire over the years the ostensible balance and objectivity of a news story; by the time the subject finally dies, a forgiving fondness reigns.

Not so for the British obituary writer, who is expected to make value judgments (as is the British beat reporter, much of the time). The goal of a British news story is as often to entertain as to inform, and writers don't generally separate the facts of the story from the way they want readers to absorb them. In an enduring essay from the late 1950s, Dwight Macdonald praised what he called the British "amateur journalism." By this he meant not a lack of professional standards, but the idea that writers pursue their topics out of genuine interest rather than professional duty or the need to sell papers.

And thus on the British obituary page harsh value judgment gives the sense of listening to one family member talk about another, with the reader presumed to be part of the family. In 1994, upon the demise of a Soho club owner named Ian Board, the Telegraph gleefully noted that Board "managed to avoid National Service because he was a bed-wetter ('an hereditary affliction,' he explained, 'which runs in cycles of seven years'), as well as a conscientious objector and a homosexual."

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?"

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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