How, in an age so restless as ours in its craving for the new and the unexpected, are we to account for the extraordinary expansion in newspaper obituary coverage in this country over the past twenty-five years? An obituary is not of itself news. It looks back, not forwards. Unlike the rest of the newspaper it does not offer a critique of tendencies or trends. Its subject is those things that have been and cannot be changed.
In 1985 – except in the cases of figures of that sort of eminence which calls for national or international mourning – the obituaries published by those national titles that ran them were generally to be found only by a minute search of the paper. They would be located straggling down one or at best two columns in the general vicinity of the paid-for announcements of births, marriages and deaths or that quaint institution, the court circular. Of the dailies, only The Times and The Daily Telegraph regularly carried obituaries. The Guardian did from time to time, when a death resonated with its particular preoccupations. The Independent had not at that stage been founded.
Today, all four of these ‘quality’ dailies give prominent space to accounts of the lives of the recently departed as a matter of course and not merely when the death of a public figure makes inescapable claims on our attention. Thus, the Telegraph daily devotes most of one of its broadsheet pages to its coverage; The Guardian on average two of its smaller Berliner-sized pages; the relatively recently tabloid Independent and Times respectively two and three or three-and-a-half pages. From being associated with those parts of the paper that, as Sir Thomas Browne put it in a different context, ‘have handsomely glossed the deformity of death’ obituary columns have become cheerleaders for what may be achieved in life and as such are an eagerly awaited daily feature. At different times both the Daily Mail and Daily Express have flirted with obituaries in their pages, clearly sensing that there might be some mileage in terms of readership.
What this, relatively sudden, popularity stems from is no mystery. Obituaries give welcome respite to newspaper coverage that is devoted to reporting disasters, rooting out corruption and inveighing against public malfeasance. Set against this dark and depressing daily litany of failure and downright wickedness, stories of success in life provide welcome and bright relief, an oasis of calm in a world that sometimes seems to be teetering on the brink of self-destructive madness. On a deeper level they hold out a promise that the apparent chaos in human affairs reported so frenetically in the news pages, and which is inevitably seen ‘through a glass darkly’, may be capable of resolution through heroic effort or at least honest resolve.
The expansion in obituaries was initiated, interestingly enough, not by one of the established practitioners of the art, but by a newcomer: The Independent. In its very first edition of 7 October 1986, it astonished its rivals by carrying an entire page of obituary notices, which were not just a dogged exercise in occupying space, but were well laid out and illustrated. The Times, at that stage still feeling its way back to production normality after a winner-takes-all industrial dispute with its printers and a dramatic overnight transition from central London offices and hot metal typesetting to electronic printing and layout in the East End’s Docklands, took temporary refuge in an attitude analogous to ‘They won’t be able to keep this up’. The Telegraph, too, momentarily scratched its head. But the newcomer could, and did, keep it up, and very soon both these venerable titles were following suit. They were assisted by the contemporaneous revolution in printing technology that enabled erstwhile funereal-looking obituary columns to metamorphose into attractive obituary pages. The lesson was not lost on the high command at The Guardian, which also began to take a more serious interest in obituaries.
Greater space brought with it the possibility of covering lives that were not necessarily in the public domain, but which were nevertheless of great interest. From that moment the lives of ‘the great and the good’ – civil servants, middle ranking diplomats, minor church dignitaries, run-of-the-mill prep school headmasters, notso- modern major-generals – were, as obituary subjects, under some pressure from the claims of those who inhabited far different walks of life. The effect of carrying accounts of these newly discovered lives in the obituary pages was to prompt a fresh look at what had been considered meritorious in the past. Merely to rise in one’s chosen profession, and to collect along the way the public honours that went with that process, ceased to be a guarantee of inclusion. The ‘Sewage Disposal Officer in Uppingham’, regarding whom – as long ago as 1956 – the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis had sneered at The Times’ intentions because he ‘automatically has at least half a column about him in standing type at the office – but writers and artists are not provided for until they are eighty’, no longer seemed so assured of his place.
This shook what had seemed to be eternal verities. The rulebook had apparently been torn up, but what was to replace it? One has often been asked what the criteria are for getting an obituary into the paper. It is an eminently fair question. The answer is that, outside those who simply must get an obituary on any scale of judgement, selection is an inexact science. Given the opportunity, on a quiet day when public affairs do not dictate the obituary agenda, to feature the kind of character nearest to its heart The Guardian is likely to hold up a valiant social worker, state school teacher or someone in a cognate field of endeavour. The Telegraph is prone to plump for one of its quirky cavalrymen (of which it has a seemingly endless store) to illustrate proclivities it deems loveable – and so on. The Times is not apparently noted by its rivals for a taste in eccentrics. Yet on such occasions when the news schedule was not dictating the pace, one recalls space being made for such an extraordinary character as Stanley Green, for years the ‘protein philosopher of London’s Oxford Street’. His obituary began:
‘Borne serenely aloft above the preoccupied mass of humanity which jostles daily along Oxford Street, the banner of Stanley Green urging protein wisdom was a clarion call from a world at a delightfully dotty tangent to our own. A gentle man with a wry smile on his face, Green was at war, if such a word befits such a mild personality, with overindulgence in what he termed “Eight Passion Proteins”. To these he ascribed many ills, but predominantly what he saw as the miseries arising from sexual excess. Not that the word sex ever passed his lips or appeared in his literature; he always referred to it by one or other of the quaint euphemisms he had at his disposal.’
And it concluded:
‘Green had made himself an integral item on the list of London’s landmarks, and he and his unfashionable gospel of moderation will be missed, even by those who had no intention of heeding them.’
Any wise obituaries editor will instinctively see that parading a taste for ‘eccentricity’ in the obituary columns of a newspaper can rapidly become an affectation: ‘There’s nothing much else on, Jones, let’s have one of our eccentrics today!’ To hijack Keats’s famous stricture on poetry, if it ‘comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’.
When the obituaries department of The Independent launched its surprise flanking movement against its long-established fellows on that day in 1986 it did so with a display of notices, all of which were signed. As such they immediately appeared to be much more in the nature of a personal tribute than the anonymous obituaries published in The Times and Telegraph. The latter carried with them the assumption that, like the opinions of the leader columns, they somehow represented an impartial expression of a Times or Telegraph verdict on their subject – if such a thing, divorced from the human agency that produced them, could realistically be imagined. Times obituaries are the children of a journalistic culture which was, for almost two hundred years of the paper’s history, largely anonymous. Even in its news pages the paper did not until the mid-1960s readily give by-lines to its correspondents. Thus a distinguished commentator on the Far East, upon whom, during the 1940s, the readership would be reliant for a complex analysis of such a world-shaping event as the civil war in China and the toppling of the Kuomintang regime by the forces of communism under Mao Zedong, would be known to his readers merely as ‘Student of Asia’.
This has all changed. Reporters have long since emerged as personalities in their own right. As far as the paper’s political and social comment is concerned the space devoted to the opinions of columnists far outweighs that occupied by the leading articles. But the arguments for and against anonymity in obituary authorship continue. The tradition of anonymity has its advantages, and not merely from the point of view of allowing malice to be safely vented under its cloak. While The Times likes to pride itself on giving a ‘warts and all’ account of its subjects, there is a certain reflex in play which acts as a brake on gratuitous spite. The tradition indeed has its advantages. An unsigned piece is far more likely to be written – and understood – as an account of the subject’s life and achievements rather than of his relationship with the author.
Times and Telegraph notices may be elaborate compositions, updated and revised over the years by a number of hands. The obituary of someone of the longevity of the Queen Mother would have needed a raft of by-lines, and some of those would have been of contributors who had predeceased their subject. Sheer practicality still dictates the status quo.
An interest has grown up over recent years in what sort of people obituarists are – as if they were a breed somehow distinct from other writers. This has led to something that seems to me to verge on the establishment of a cult of the obituarist. Doctoral theses – and now books – are being written about obituary writing as if the subject were capable of academic study. Several – singularly bad – novels about obituarists have seen the light of day. An International Association of Obituarists, consisting mainly of journalists and based in America where obituaries form an important part of local papers, holds periodic conferences in Las Vegas, New Mexico where it deliberates at length such knotty ethical points as whether or not the cause of death should be revealed or discussed.
Quite apart from being a rather self-regarding exercise, this is also something of a nonsense. Many of the obituaries published in newspapers are, of course, not the work of journalists at all, but of specialists in the subject’s field who may well write only one obituary in their lifetime. An obituary editor’s unending task is the search for these specialist writers to help build up what is known in the business as a ‘stock’ of obituaries through which the paper may hope to be prepared when death strikes. And that is the problem. Death all too often strikes unawares, throwing the best laid plans into disarray. The obituary of President John F. Kennedy in The Times began the night as a column or so of type and had been expanded to occupy more than a page by the time the last edition went to press. Many obituaries do have to be written in-house in a terrible scramble and this is when the paper’s own writers are in the firing line, relying on knowledge and memory as much as the capacity to conduct rapid research. This is especially true in an era when the ‘Must for Tonight’ bar has been lowered. Celebrity takes all manner of new and interesting forms, and in the event of untimely death editors will expect in tomorrow’s paper comprehensive treatment of a career inhabiting any point on the spectrum of endeavour from fashion design to Formula One.
On such occasions a newspaper obituarist might be entitled to think, after a couple of sweaty hours, that he or she has cut the mustard. It is a feeling best not indulged in. Time’s wingèd chariot is always hurrying near. The shadowy taskmaster is on hand with further work to be done.