late actor Hume Cronyn liked telling the story of the time he
received a call from the New York Times requesting
an interview. Since he was days away from closing in a Broadway
play rather than opening in one, he was puzzled by the request
but also mindful of his mother's advice never to turn down a
chance to have his name in the Times.
was disconcerted when the interviewer showed up at the door
of his Manhattan apartment --- not a reporter from the daily's
Arts section, but a young man who needed to add a few years
even to be taken for an intern. The light dawned only after
the first few questions, which had the common preface of, "Of
all the plays (films, TV shows) you've done, which do you think
of as your most important?" What the actor was being interviewed
for, he realized, was his obituary. Or as he put it, "I
was already dead, just didn't know it!"
of newspaper readers become aware every day about the new dead.
The most impatient review the names of the departed online while
the print-addicted insist on ink in their breakfast muffins.
A necrology in such broadsheets as the New York Times, Washington
Post, or Los Angeles Times can run into a coffee
refill if the life described has been fascinating enough. Contract
killers who have written Civil War novels and won the Nobel
Prize for molecular biology are always worth postponing a return
to the front page for more squalid lies from Washington. Some
people have had enthralling lives and we are richer for knowing
about them, if a little late.
there are those shadows over the obit reading habit, and the
now- and-then readership survey isn't reassuring. What it usually
comes down to is that the reader who skips over the ball scores
and the latest betrayal of the Kurds to get to the details on
the death of a GM vice-president is advanced in years and has
invited thoughts of his own mortality into his mind too generously.
Simply the identification of the lethal disease that did in
the subject, according to studies of the kind, provides another
throw pillow for the couch for some readers to curl upon despondently.
is the glass half-empty outlook. But being attracted to the
obituary pages isn't some contemporary quest for having one's
diagnosed neurosis for ruminant cocktail party chat. As long
ago as the Roman Empire, a daily scroll translated as Daily
Acts circulated with news of the latest senator who gorged himself
on one grape too many and didn't get to the vomitorium on time.
The format of name, cause, and official regret stayed more or
less the same throughout Europe for centuries and was picked
up in America under such headings as Bill of Mortality. Necrolatry
has never been a nationalist threat. My own scientific study
shows that more obituary readers have learned things -- about
people, historical events, secret lovers -- than start driving
by cemeteries after midnight.
readers also have a lot more clues than they might suspect to
what is trending out there in other sections of their paper.
headlined ages of the deceased make it clear that 90 may soon
become the new 25, supporting the TV commercial wisdom to eat
Cheerios and run across your favorite trestle bridge whenever
possible. And look more closely at who is providing all that
steady work for morticians. It wasn't very long ago that every
other notice was about a newspaperman from Arkansas awarded
a Pulitzer for a series of articles on a salmon's right to swim
downstream. But no more newspapermen because there are no more
newspapers. Instead, we have obituaries for so many rock drummers
from the 1970s that the vinyl in our closet reappreciates with
every arrival of the newspaper delivery boy.
so many centuries, death notices have gone beyond the name,
the cause, and too bad. Sometimes they approach literature,
other times literature's noted trope of irony. The form's equivalent
of War and Peace was arguably a 13,000-word farewell
in the Times
to Pope John Paul, unofficially the paper's longest ever and
lacking only hard covers for a book biography. On the other
hand, there was
the case of Mel Gussow, assigned to get down the fundamentals
for an obituary for Elizabeth Taylor in 1989. Year by year,
his copy until he himself died in 2008, three years before Taylor.
It is hardly a longshot bet that every obituary section in the
presently has a computer file on millions of people who may
have been as famous as John Paul and Elizabeth Taylor or as
as the first spokesman for Japanese steak knives but who are
united in not yet supplying the RIP year. And don't think there
aren't a lot
of so-called ‘content providers’ who haven't heard
of Mel Gussow.
to it, though, our relationship with obituary notices is driven
by a curiosity indistinguishable from a judgment and being
applied to ourselves as well as to the person we are reading
about; to wit, has he (she) led a good life?