Tales of life, not death

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, published an obituary in its second edition (12 March, 1803). It was a re-print from an unnamed British source, recording the life of Samuel McDonald, known as ‘Big Sam’, a sergeant of the 93rd Regiment who was ‘six feet ten inches in height, four feet round the chest … and always disliked being stared at’. Just over a year later, on 25 March, 1804, the Gazette produced an obituary of its own to acknowledge the death of the New South Wales building superintendent, James Bloodworth.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, journalism’s dying art flourished. Newspaper readers loved a story with a moral, they luxuriated in ornate prose, and—on the strength of what I’ve found in trawling through several miles of library microfilm—they had no objections to graphic, intrusive reporting. In 1862, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald obituary of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, contained this deathbed intelligence: ‘The prince’s sufferings during the last day or two of his life are said to have been agonising. When an attempt was made to lift him, or move his position, his groans were distressing to hear’. That obituary also offered a detailed clinical description of typhoid (which had killed Albert) and discussed the foul state of the drains near Windsor Castle.

But by the 1920s, obituary publication by leading newspapers, with the exception of The New York Times and London’s Times, had largely fallen into decline. The press showed an increasing preference instead for pictorial spreads, whole-page display advertising, home hints, short stories, sport and (from the 1950s) television columns.

It came thundering back in mid-1980s Britain, when the introduction of computer-driven typesetting allowed newspapers to grow in size and scope. In particular, the launch of The Independent and the appointment of a reformist obituaries editor at The Daily Telegraph led to a fresh, entertaining, and sometimes irreverent obituary style.

Their obituaries received international syndication. The Americans—notably The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post—strengthened their obituary sections. And then, in 1993, Australia joined the revival. Journalism’s dying art has enjoyed a resurrection: today there are eight Australian daily newspapers with a designated obituaries page.

It began with Melbourne’s Herald Sun in July that year. The editor, Alan Oakley, wanted to attract as readers a greater share of what is known in the trade as the A/B demographic—the better educated and more affluent. He expanded his paper’s business coverage and introduced an obituaries section as the prime features of achieving that aim. The Australian followed five months later, launching ‘Time & Tide’, a page that it proclaimed as specialising in ‘obituaries, reviews and life’s revealing moments’.

The national daily selected a controversial figure for the debut of ‘Time & Tide’ on Monday, 6 December 1993: Murray Farquhar, who had died the preceding Friday. Sydney’s chief magistrate for eight years, he had subsequently been jailed for four years on a charge of perverting the course of justice. The revival of the obituary art at The Australian was marked by this unsparing posthumous assessment, under the byline of crime writer Bob Bottom: ‘Murray Frederick Farquhar, World War II veteran, solicitor, Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, epitomised the unfortunate nexus between Sydney’s notorious underworld and its so-called upper world. His death on Friday, of a heart attack, aged 75, has laid to rest the most public symbol of that particular malaise in Sydney society over recent decades which saw criminal figures mix openly with public figures’.

The obituary, neglected by Australia’s newspapers for 70 years, was suddenly fashionable again. The Age began its page in May 1994, followed by The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996, The Advertiser (Adelaide) and The Canberra Times in 1999, The West Australian in 2000, and Brisbane’s Courier Mail in 2003. At The Courier Mail, David Fagan recalls that he had identified an obituaries page as a priority on being appointed to the editor’s chair: ‘What inspired it? I thought obituaries were an important characteristic of any newspaper that aspired to be a newspaper of record and of any local newspaper of note’.

Though Australia, Britain, and the United States have all adopted the obituary with enthusiasm, they do demonstrate marked variations in its practice. American newspapers are much concerned with contemporaneous publication—striving to publish within 72 hours of death—and with defining the cause of that death. The Los Angeles Times is notably obsessive about cause, to the extent that when the poet Charles Henri Ford died aged 94 in 2002, it attributed his demise to ‘causes associated with aging (sic)’.

The British approach is quite different, ignoring in many instances the time factor and cause of death, adopting a reflective and often ironic style, supplying candid revelation, and entertaining the reader with anecdote and bon mot.

London’s quality press has a particular passion for obituaries which recount the habits of daft peers (such as the 4th Earl Russell, who used to crochet his own trousers out of string and who told the House of Lords that Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter were ‘really the same person’) and the tribulations of straying clergy. Notable among the latter was the Reverend Michael Bland, who, according to his Daily Telegraph obituary, had been hauled before the Consistory Court in Gloucestershire for ‘writing rude letters to six people’. He was sentenced to be deprived of his living, but won on appeal to the Court of Arches, which administered only a formal rebuke and allowed him to return to his parish. The Telegraph noted: ‘Any hope that, once the court case was ended, there would be a recovery of pastoral relations between the Rector and his parishioners quickly was dashed … For many years, Sunday services were attended only by the Rector’s housekeeper’.

The Australian style is typified by two factors: sentimentality and egalitarianism. The first of those is caused by the willingness of our papers—even the leading dailies of Sydney and Melbourne—to publish reader contributions. They allow those amateur writers to share, with the readership at large, the most intimate reflections on their bereavement.

‘Our friend Luke has been taken from us and no one on this planet can reason why’, declared The Australian in an obituary, submitted by a sports official, following the death of an athlete. In another of the more extreme examples, The Age published this reminiscence from one of its readers: ‘I have felt proud and honoured to share a long relationship with the remarkable woman I have always known as “Nana”. I cannot believe that I will never see her again’. In each of those instances, sincere as the sentiment might have been, the words themselves were better suited to a classified death notice than to an obituary column.

A more congenial outcome is found in the egalitarian tendency of Australian newspapers. Their obituary subject selection is entirely free of rank or class considerations, with the famous dead appearing alongside an array of factory workers, truck drivers, school cleaners, and parish priests. As Tony Love, a former obituaries editor of Adelaide’s Advertiser, sees it: ‘The page confers a real kind of social justice through celebrating little heroes’. Suzy Baldwin, at The Sydney Morning Herald, has dedicated a section of her page to these lives; it is called ‘Untold Stories’.

And how are life stories, of all types, best told in print? The trick is to capture a subject’s character through the power of anecdote. John Farquharson, Canberra’s resident obituarist, demonstrated the technique in his Age obituary of Alexander Borthwick, a diplomat: ‘With his clipped speech, chivalry and great sense of humour, he was also good at the throwaway line. An instance of this was when the Duke of Edinburgh asked him whether his family of nine meant he was a good Catholic. “No”, Alex replied, “just a careless Anglican”’.

Nigel Starck teaches creative writing at the University of South Australia. His PhD thesis, Writes of Passage (Flinders University), is a comparative study of newspaper obituary practice in Britain, the United States, and Australia.



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