British Obituaries (National Post, February 02, 2004)

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. (Say nothing about the dead unless it is good.) This dictum was law in newspapers until 1986, when England’s Daily Telegraph set out to rival the obituary monopoly held by The Times. The Telegraph’s obit page then became one of the great morning pleasures of a London holiday.

Where in Canada would you find an obit like that of Sir Hugh Rankin: “riveter’s mate, sheep-shearer, dwarf-fir forest crawler” and self styled “blood-red militant Communist in every possible way – absolutely blood red”. Or this tribute to sideshow freak, Melvin Burkhart, the “human blockhead”: “Anyone who has ever hammered a nail into his nose owes a large debt to Melvin Burkhart.”

Or Dr Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar who was “registered as a girl at birth due to a ghastly mistake.”

The British have a great tolerance, even affection for eccentricity in their fellow man. Revelations that Canadians might deem libelous to the departed are considered fair game for non-judgmental entertainment across the Pond. Total candour, plus the dotty Wodehousian spirit admired by recently retired obit page editor Hugh Massingberd give the Daily Telegraph obits their distinctive deadpan irony. Indeed, writing obits is a cool assignment in England. Robert Chalmers, a former obit writer, recalls a staff member showing visitors around the newsroom and saying, “That’s Sports over there, and those people laughing around the screen are the obituarists.”

Even the Daily Telegraph’s corrections to obit mistakes are hilarious: When the Telegraph published (twice) the obituary of (very much alive) Jacqueline “Cookie” Hoogterp, they offered a retraction in Hoogterp’s own words: “Mrs Hoogterp wishes it to be known that she has not yet been screwed in her coffin.”

Allusion to the deceased’s sexuality was the final barricade to tumble. Obits used to rely on nuance, euphemisms or leading comments. Of an Oxford don one might say “his door was always open, at any hour of the day or night”(implying alcoholism and gross sexual improprieties). The sixth earl of Carnarvon was described as “a most uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man” (he was a flasher).

But on September 29, 1986, the Times of London plainly described the deceased Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann as “a homosexual of the proselytizing kind”. This revelation coincided with the launch of The Independent, a new national daily and the Daily Telegraph’s new obit page. And the race to capture readers with wit, originality, and surprising revelations was on. American and Australian newspapers immediately followed suit with recaps of ordinary lives - cops, landladies and beggars, not just politicians and CEOs - and the juxtaposition of straightforward biographical fact with bizarre detail

The American approach combined offbeat character portraits with its very own high energy razzle-dazzle rhythm, as in this NY Times obit of Harold C. Fox “…who claimed credit for creating and naming the zoot suit with the reat pleat, the reave sleeve, the ripe stripe, the stuff cuff and the drape shape that was the stage rage during the boogie woogie rhyme time…”

Most of us will never see – or rather those we leave behind won’t see – any obituary beyond the obligatory paragraph on the back page: “Beloved husband/wife/mother/father of…etc”. But the urge to be individualized in memory, however modestly, is universal. My favourite example of this impulse is the donation plaque on a seaside bench in Maine in memory of “Marilyn Saltzman, 1939-1997: She loved a good lobster roll.”

The obituary genre began in 17th century London and achieved its highest popularity n the late 19th century. In keeping with Victorian values, obits were often cautionary tales with an emphasis on the consequences of immoral living. Modern obituaries can be more like scathing stage or book reviews. An entrepreneur was described in Melborne, Australia’s The Age as “a scoundrel, a thief, a liar and a coward.” An actor was remembered in the Telegraph as “the most famously dull character in the history of soap operas…with the charisma of an ashtray.”

One would think that Canadians, who have a proud tradition of punching above their weight in comedic circles, would demand a similar level of showmanship and panache in their obituaries. The ruthlessly irreverent send-up is a British tradition Canadians excel at. Witness the savagely satirical The Newsroom. Why are Canadians only seriously funny on TV, while the Brits and – to a lesser, but very lively degree – the Americans have their own satirical obituary tradition in print? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what would ensue if Rick Mercer were to take over the Obituaries page at the National Post for a month?

Quid rides? De te fibula narrator: (What are you laughing at? The joke’s on you). Or could be when you die if Canadian newspapers take a cue from their hard-hearted anglophone cousins.

© National Post 2004