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Tales of life, not death

  • 30 April 2006

They call me Dr Death. I owe the nickname to my PhD topic: the history of the newspaper obituary. But my thesis tells a tale in conflict with that name, for the obituary—when done well—is about life in all its permutations rather than death in its ultimate uniformity. It can be an explicit appraisal of a career snuffed out, as in this Melbourne Age obituary of the fugitive entrepreneur Christopher Skase: ‘To those closest to him, Christopher Skase was man of vision, a creator of prosperity and a persecuted victim of witch-hunting governments. Alternatively, he is remembered as a scoundrel, a thief, a liar and a coward’. It can be an account of triumph over adversity, as displayed by Angel Wallenda, an American wire-walker who had lost a leg to cancer but continued to perform until shortly before her death. Her New York Times obituary included this quote: ‘When I’m way up in the sky, walking on a thin line with a fake leg, people look up at me and really pay attention … They see that I’m using everything I’ve got to live my life the best I can. When people think about that … some of them see how much better they can live their own lives’.

And it is often funny. London’s Daily Telegraph, which has a reputation for remembering eccentric lives, revealed that the admirers of Lady Denisa Newborough, who had also been a wire-walker in her youth, included ‘the Kings of Spain and Bulgaria, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Sheikh Ben Ghana, who gave her 500 sheep’.

My archival research has traced the origins of the obituary to the newsbooks—in essence, the magazines of the day—which circulated in 17th-century Europe. The earliest I have detected so far, in a 1625 English newsbook translated from a Dutch original and entitled The Continuation of Our Weekly Newes, records the life and death of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange. It was an established journalism practice by the early 18th century, when the first daily papers appeared in London, and from there it was taken to the colonies. America encountered the obituary in 1704, at the death of Mrs Jane Treat, granddaughter of Connecticut’s deputy governor, described by the Boston News-Letter as a woman of ‘piety, patience, modesty and sobriety’. She had been ‘struck dead by a terrible flash of lightening’ while reading her bible.

Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette,