Gimme Shelter: Last call

Ambrose Clancy

Ambrose Clancy

We were talking in the newsroom about obituaries recently — “obits” in newspaper speak.

Obituary: from the Latin verb obire, with several meanings, such as “to go to meet.” Or, my favorite, “to cope with.”

A translation of the plural comes from my father: “The Irish sports page.”

And isn’t it remarkable how people continue to die in alphabetical order?

One of the all-time popular obits was Osama Bin Laden’s, which many people commented on, mistakenly quoting Mark Twain (it was actually Clarence Darrow): “I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”
Twain once had the pleasure of reading his own obit, but whether he said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is up for debate.

What do Brittany Spears and Ernest Hemingway have in common? Right, both great Americans. But they were also blessed to have read their own obits because of journalists’ errors. After phony reports of a car crash, Britt was reported as road kill, and Hem was declared permanently toes up in newspapers after a real plane crash in Africa. A friend reported that Papa kept his premature obits in a scrapbook and often read them in the morning with a glass of champagne.

It’s anyone’s guess what Brittany is up to in the mornings these days.

Alfred Nobel was given another shot at his legacy after his premature obit. The inventor of dynamite and other explosives must have had a tough morning after reading: “The Merchant of Death is dead … who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”

Not long after, Nobel made sure a good part of his estate would be used to establish the peace prize.

Most news organizations write obits when the famous haven’t yet shuffled off, so they can run them on deadline when the celebrity is truly dead, and just cross the final T, as it were, when the farm is bought.

Recently a respected veteran reporter landed the position as principal obit writer for a big daily. A dream job, I thought, not just for the fun of rummaging around in people’s lives and asking questions, but because it seems to be one of the more honorable forms of journalism.

Even a poorly written obit, even the ones that get some minor facts wrong, even the standard death notice that’s faxed or emailed to community newspapers from funeral homes with surname, middle initial, first name, date and place of death and birth, residence, survivors, arrangements — even that flat drumbeat of a life is a sign of civilization.

It’s coping. The same as the evolutionary leap the species took when we developed the instinct to be horrified when the dead aren’t treated with grave — take the pun — respect.

There’s also another human aspect of the obit — the need to make order out of the random and inexplicable events of a life. A life’s purpose and direction is a given once it’s set into language, punctuation, paragraphs.

When I was writing obits for a small newspaper, it was a pleasure hearing people eager to speak about a loved one, or someone they respected and missed and who had influenced them, and would continue to influence them, until it was time for their own obituary to be written.

It’s also not the worst thing to read obits, working under the theory that there’s nothing like a death notice, the same as a death sentence, to help you concentrate on life.

Sometimes knocking together an obit, I felt that a survivor (the perfect word) when talking with me, was pleased to have a chance to make amends, or, again, to add a trace of order to what may have been a messy life. The old expression applies to preparing obits the same as delivering eulogies: No one is under oath.

If journalism is the first draft of history, obits are the working notes of biography. Eugene Polley, another great American, died at 96. Polley invented the TV remote during, according to The New York Times, such an ancient era that the obit writer felt it necessary to explain to contemporary readers that previous to Colley’s scientific breakthrough, there was something called a dial, “a round thing with numbers on it … One did not so much surf channels in those days as ride their gentle swells with all due deliberateness.”

The Times writer revealed the true spirit of the obit, providing insight into how our forebears had coped with life.