Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Praise of Obituaries

Shakespeare, in "Julius Caesar" Act 3, scene 2, had Marc Antony say: "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," but the praise given to those just buried in newspaper obituaries is an art form worthy of appreciation. The extent of copyright in news reports has been the subject of many cases, but the obituary page of flagship papers like the New York Times, is, to those who love writing, a world of its own, full of genius, humor, and an amazing ability to capture important characteristics of the deceased in a short space, a form of biographical haiku. The obituary page has finally received the critical attention it deserves in Marilyn Johnson's just published book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Ms. Johnson's work is both loving and scholarly, exploring differences between British and U.S. styles, as well as regional differences within the U.S. There is an International Obituary Writers Association, which is having its 8th Annual Conference in June 2006 in New Mexico. Here is a link.

It is not in the celebrity obituaries that one finds the gems, but in the stories about far more ordinary lives. Here is one, familiar to New Yorkers: "Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."

In today's New York Times, there is an obituary about Joseph Bova (along with a picture). Mr. Bova was described as an "Actor with a Flair for Comedy." His roles were said to range from "Prince Dauntless the Drab in the original production of 'Once Upon a Mattress' to Shakespeare's King Richard the III. He was said to "be known largely for his comedic abilities ... [and] although not a major star, had a steady career on and off Broadway, in movies and television." The obituary describes his having acted with Lynn Redgrave in a 1977 production of GB Shaw's "St. Joan," and as having played Bert Barry in "42d Street" for its entire 1980 to 1989 run. Then comes the highlight of the obit for me, the only quote, from his widow: "He played a purple turtle in a children's vitamin ad. Those ads were enough to buy a country house in Woodstock."

What a wry comment on an industry and a career. Obituary writers are among our greatest cultural commentators and like the best of memorialists, have the ability to affirm life in all its humor and pathos. In an era when the number of newspapers is shrinking and becoming more and more corporate, afraid to confront the critical issues of the day critically, it is reassuring that tucked away, there are those like Chuck Strum (NY Times obit editor) and his colleagues who devote their lives to making sure we appreciate the lives of others.


Anonymous said...

This is a good one from today's Times:


Reinhold E. Rau, a taxidermist who spent three decades pursuing his dream of breeding an extinct zebra back into existence and nearly achieved it, died last month at his home in South Africa. He was in his mid-70's.

William Patry said...

Yeah, I loved that one

Anonymous said...

I thought you were going to mention their importance in tracking heirs of authors... most important when seeking to republish old books.