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All About Obits

Adam Bernstein

Obit writers do mingle among the living from time to time. Perhaps it was someone's idea of a pre-Halloween joke, but I spoke last week at the private Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., to an audience of faculty members of students about the craft of writing obituaries.

With lots of teenagers in attendance -- who probably never read or care much about obits - I tried to make the speech as anecdotal and fun as possible. I spoke about how a lobbyist for despots lobbied me to do his own obit in advance and about the decisions we make in newsgathering in a complicated life. In short, some families still confuse obits for eulogies, and not everyone is happy when we include facts that are less-than-flattering.

The speech also gave me a chance to explain a brief history of how obits -- and the reputation of those who write them -- have developed over the years.

By the mid-19th century, the obituary form became well-established and had "quite a bit of clout with some prestige attached to it," obit historian Nigel Starck once told me. Establishment newspapers contained richly lyrical, often ornate obituaries about major figures of the day, from Queen Victoria of England to American bard Walt Whitman.

By the 1920s, a preference emerged for rat-a-tat newspaper prose that effectively buried the eloquent obituary form at most dailies. And as a result, Starck said, obituaries attracted a reputation as a practice ground for freshman journalists and punishment for the newsroom's drunks.

"The whole image of the paper changed to a quick, ephemeral fix, and the languid-style obit did not seem to suit that," he said. "So the prestige of the job went to pot until the obit revival of the 1980s."

He was referring to a series of mischievous-minded London obituary editors -- among them, James Ferguson of the new Independent newspaper and Hugh Massingberd of The Daily Telegraph. They ditched the starchy emphasis on burying leaders in politics, law and military and included more dead pop culture figures such as rock stars and Hollywood starlets. They also urged a witty, anecdotal approach that did not shy from noting a subject's often-unsavory eccentricities.

By Adam Bernstein  |  November 2, 2009; 10:03 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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Comments

Adam Bernstein can't say THAT - or can he?

Posted by: smiller6 | November 2, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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