Everyone has a part of the newspaper that they habitually turn to first. Some read the business section; some the sports page; some the comics. Others turn to the obituaries. Reading the obituaries over one’s coffee would seem a rather morbid way to start the morning, but obituaries have fans. Recently, New York Times obituaries have been collected in The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells and 52 McGs, as well as a study of who gets commemorated. Goodbye Magazine tracks particularly noteable celebrity obits, and London’s Daily Telegraph has spawned a whole series of obituary collections, each volume dedicated to, say, eccentrics or heros and adventurers. British obituaries are prized by connoisseurs for their bluntness, superior sense of gallows humor, and occasional genuine spitefulness; American obituaries tend to be respectful, even when the subject doesn’t deserve it. Consider the Telegraph obituary for Leo Marks (screenwriter of Michael Powell’s infamous and overwrought Peeping Tom and the voice of Satan in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ), for instance. It dismisses Marks’ literary career as "largely forgettable", devoting itself instead to Marks’ wartime career as a cryptographer (he apparently spearheaded England’s use of unbreakable one-time pads) and the jewel-like details that make obituaries so compelling:
The agents were using well-known poems as the cyphers for encoding their messages, and these could either be guessed by an enemy armed with reference books, or simply tortured out of captured operatives.
His initial solution was to use original poems instead as cyphers. Many of these he wrote himself, the best known being that which he gave to the agent Violette Szabo, "The Life That I Have". He had actually written it for a girl with whom he was in love, the news of whose death in an air crash he heard on Christmas Eve 1943.
I used to think that I paid attention to them in order to feel superior; after all, one had survived even the featured dead. But yesterday, reading the dreaded page, I discovered a better reason for turning first to the obituaries every day. I was reading about persons who were notable enough in their lives to merit lengthy considerations at their death but of whom I had never heard.
Professor Grumbach’s lack of schadenfreude is to be admired, but I’m not at all convinced that it’s universal.
In June, a small group of gathered in New Mexico to celebrate the art of obituary writing. Any long and storied craft deserves its own trade conference, and this was it for the obituary world, the Fourth Annual Great Obituary Writers’ Conference. The attendees who gathered to "study the art and science of the obituary" appreciate the chance to read a well-written little narrative of a stranger’s life; the conference was started not by a writer or an editor, but by an obit fan, Carolyn Gilbert.
As Gilbert noted in an interview, preparing celebrity obituaries can be touchy issue. When you’re trying to get the obituary prepared for someone who’s already famous, the opportunity to sum up a life in 500 words seems less valuable than the opportunity to spin from beyond the grave. Who wouldn’t want to know that the literal last word written on them is going to be a favorable one? Sometimes they even get to check, as prewritten obits occasionally slip out prematurely. After the death of Ludvig Nobel in 1888, his brother Alfred’s obituary was mistakenly run. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, can’t have been happy to see himself branded a "merchant of death", and the incident likely led to the creation of the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Prize. Nobel’s obituary was at least written by a disinterested observer. An article on Lester Bangs notes that Nick Kent wrote an obituary for Sid Vicious; as Vicious got his nickname after assaulting Kent with a bicycle chain, I can only imagine how it read. (Bangs’ own obit for Elvis Presley was apparently entitled "How Long Will We Care?".) Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan, beginning, "Has it been marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this earth was to catch flies?", is acclaimed as perhaps the single nastiest obituary in American history, but at least a reader could tell how Mencken really felt. Edgar Allen Poe’s obituary was written by a literary and romantic rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who later became Poe’s literary executor and began systemically revising Poe’s biography to cast him in a bad light (even forging correspondence). Surely if Poe ever entertained a fantasy of reading his own eulogy, it didn’t begin with the words: "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." Even flycatching might have been an improvement.