Looking back, looking forward: The art of obituary writing

By Sandra Martin

By Sandra Martin

Older than the printing press, obituaries are a journalistic and literary form dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Homer’s account of the great warrior Achilles in The Iliad—his heroics, his rage, his vulnerability—was spoken not read, but otherwise his epic poem has all the components of a modern obituary. Nowadays, journalists use social media and video along with more traditional tools such as print, radio and television, but two things remain constant:  Obituaries are a combination of biography, reportage and analysis written under deadline pressure; and they reflect the cultural values and norms of their times.

In the Middle Ages, religious scribes painstakingly created illuminated manuscripts detailing the lives of saints and martyrs.  Over time the practice morphed from the spiritual to the secular, especially after the invention of the printing press, the emergence of a bourgeois society and the proliferation of newspapers and journals aimed at a readership that embraced both the gentleman and his tailor.  Fame and celebrity and untimely or dramatic demises—the more gruesome and prolonged the better—became a feature of newspaper accounts in the late 18th century.  Change some of the names and details and you could be reading about contemporary celebrities, including the late Diana Princess of Wales.    

All of that changed under the long and sombre reign of Queen Victoria. When the Duke of Wellington died in 1852, his massive obituary, containing more than 40,000 words ran over several dense pages in The Times of London on two successive days.  After the carnage of the First World War, however, obituaries declined in popularity in England, presumably because readers were sick of death after four gruelling years of the “War to end all wars.”  The same was true in the United States after the Civil War, where there was a dashing of sentimentality about noble or romantic death because the real thing had become far too familiar. 

Related content on J-Source:

Most observers agree that the heyday of the modern obituary was launched in The Daily Telegraph in London in the late 1980s under the tutelage of obituary editor Hugh Massingberd or “Massivesnob” as he was dubbed in the satirical magazine Private Eye.  He delighted in revealing the “real” person through informal anecdotes and telling details—the more scurrilous the better—in unsigned obituaries.  When pressed by his superiors to follow the American style of reporting cause of death, Massingberd retaliated with the obituary of a man who died when his penile implant exploded, or perhaps more accurately, imploded. 

The anonymous obituary for Liberace, the flamboyant pianist whose life is currently being portrayed in a biopic starring Michael Douglas, is a classic.  It quoted liberally from a “particularly venomous” review of a performance Liberace had given back in 1956 at the London Palladium.  “He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief and the old heave ho,” was one of the milder criticisms in the archived review.  It went on to complain that Liberace was “the summit of sex, the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter and everything that he, she and it can ever want.” 

Back then, when consensual sex between adult males was a crime, Liberace sued for libel, denying he was a homosexual, and won damages from the High Court.  By the time Liberace finally died, almost certainly of HIV/AIDS in 1987, both the law and sexual mores had changed.  Besides, the pianist was no longer around to sue, so quoting from the once libellous review was fair game.  The final line of the obituary was a typically cheeky and coded message embedded in a one sentence paragraph: “He was unmarried.”

Massingberd knew intuitively that obituaries are about life, not death.  That means digging into the past to account for motivation, applaud achievements and explain failures in order to capture the essence of the deceased in the context of his or her times.  Telling the Truth, however painful to mourning family and friends, is key.  That’s the theme of the fourth conference of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers at Ryerson University from June 7-9.  Organized by Toronto freelance obituary writers Ron Csillag, Noreen Shanahan, Nora Ryell and Ryerson professor Catherine Dunphy (author of Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero), the conference is open to the public.



Sandra Martin, a senior features writer with The Globe and Mail, is an award winning journalist and broadcaster.  Her most recent book is Working the Dead Beat:50 Lives that Changed Canada (House of Anansi Press). Photo credit: Nigel Dickson.


J-Source will live blog the SPOW conference. Here are the highlights of the upcoming conference:

Death, sex, taxes, crime, hidden children and business scandals are some of the secrets that obituary writers confront on a daily basis.  How do you navigate a path between responsible journalism and respecting the grief of family and friends?  “Died suddenly” as a coded euphemism for suicide, is only one of the secrets that SPOW president Andy Meacham , of the Tampa Bay Times ,will deconstruct  in a talk about telling the truth.  

Columnist Catherine Porter will give us the story behind the Toronto Star’s decision to research and run a 4,000 word obituary, “Shelagh:  The Beauty of An Ordinary Life.”  Porter led a team of reporters in researching and writing the blockbuster piece that won a National Newspaper Award.  It established Shelagh’s legacy and demonstrated a truth that obituary writers know full well:  there is no such thing as an uninteresting life.

Facing the truth about the future of obituaries is a key session led by multi-media journalist Jade Walker, formerly of Yahoo. Print journalism is in the midst of an industrial revolution. Is the newspaper obituary, once the staple of metropolitan and local dailies, doomed in the revolving media landscape?  Walker reveals the future and explains how we can get there.

Martin Levin, obituary editor of The Globe and Mail, will explain why the country’s largest national newspaper continues to have a free- standing obituary page.  What is his vision for the future of obituaries?  What has he learned about the narrative power of print and the potential of multi-media in portraying and remembering the dead?

Finally Globe features writer Sandra Martin, author of Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada, will explode some of the most common myths about the craft and practise of writing obituaries.  Are obituaries pre-written and left to moulder in a drawer until the death knell tolls? Find out as Martin rips the shroud from one of the oldest journalistic beats and explains why obituaries are the building blocks of a country’s social and cultural history.