“I am flabbergasted, appalled and disgusted. How could you?”
It’s not the sort of letter any editor wants to get from a reader, especially not when the reader in question is clearly thoughtful, civilized and sane. What I’d done to provoke this outburst was publish an account on the obituary pages of The Times—the London Times, that is—of the inglorious life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
As it turned out, it was the “where” rather than the “what” that caused the trouble. The day before Zarqawi appeared, The Times obituary columns had been graced by an unlikely but not untypical combination of the extravagantly coiffured “Fifth Beatle”, Billy Preston, the innovative portrait photographer Arnold Newman, and a knighted British industrialist who had rationalized the country’s steel production and turned round a major heavy engineering concern. The day before that, we’d had the last member of the British prosecuting team at the Nuremberg Trials, another knighted industrialist (more engineering, electrical this time), and the proprietor of the Tour d’Argent, the Paris restaurant famed for its signature dish of canard au sang.
By allowing a murderous lowlife into this sort of company, I had apparently struck at the very heart of what one loyal reader thought obituaries were all about. Worse, I “might just have glorified terrorism.” Times obituaries, my correspondent explained, were often his first source of information on individuals from all walks of life and all over the world. “Enlightening and interesting”, they regularly prompted him to find out more about a person he had never heard of, or had known only as a name. He went on: “Whilst I may have found some individuals less interesting than others, I have never read an obituary of a person of such heinous reputation.”
That, I could only reply, is because you haven’t been reading long enough. Honoring the great, the good and the merely interesting has always been one of the functions of a newspaper obituary section, and it’s one of the more rewarding things we do. But it’s by no means the only thing. If it were, I’m not sure I’d want the job.
When I bump into colleagues in the corridor at work, I can be almost sure they’ll ask: “Anyone good dead today?” What they mostly mean is, “Anyone I’ve heard of?” And the answer, I’m glad to say, is usually no. That’s one of the joys of the page. While news and comment journalists have to follow the agenda set by world events, and arts and features departments all dance (or try not to dance) to the tune of the global PR machine, the obituary columns, day after day, do their own unpredictable thing, governed only by the great random variable that is death.
Sometimes, though, and perhaps more often than one might think, a significant demise is breaking front-page news. “Wellington’s death”, the 19th-century Times editor John Thadeus Delane told a colleague, “will be the only topic.” He was right, and nothing has changed since. At times like these, the obituary pages move center stage, a key element in the paper’s response to major events in the world. Usually in such cases, the obituary will lead the paper’s celebration of a life well lived. But not always. The Times ran obituaries of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Ceausesçus and Pol Pot. Aside from the deaths themselves, there’s not much to celebrate there.
One could argue, of course, that in giving obituaries to a succession of vile despots The Times was simply taking the line that most civilized governments have taken through history when confronted by unpalatable regimes: Be as bad as you like, and if you succeed in taking over your country, we’ll most likely do business with you. It’s rather like the adage, “steal a little, you end up in jail; steal a lot, you end up a king.” We’re well into the realm of politics here, of course, and it’s a realm where The Times has also run obituaries of at least a few villains who—mercifully, and despite their best (worst?) efforts—have not quite made it to head of state. A few years before we tackled Zarqawi, we included bin Laden’s number three, Mohammed Atef, killed by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan. We will gladly include bin Laden himself, just as soon as circumstances allow.
On these occasions, obituary coverage is inextricably bound up with the political and journalistic imperatives driving the rest of the paper on that day’s news. It then becomes clear that while obituaries may often be nice, and may sometimes be important, they are rarely both things at once. But ought one publish a critical account of a bad life in the space where a celebratory account of a good one would normally appear? A strongly voiced “no” is what clearly prompted the Zarqawi reader’s complaint.
But I think you have to try. The case for covering the bad guys seems compelling to me, and I can only hope that the vast majority of readers (silently) agree. When Atef appeared on the obituary page, there were a few calls and letters of complaint, though perhaps scarcely more than a dozen in all. On that occasion I replied in fairly robust terms: Atef’s actions had led to one of the most intensive military campaigns of recent years; to the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; to a fundamental change in the way the world responds to terrorism; to a profound reappraisal of the relations between Islam and other faiths; and to an international diplomatic realignment on a scale not seen since the Second World War. How could a man who had changed the world to that degree not feature on a page that seeks to record and explain significant lives?
Criminals less global in their ambitions than bin Laden and his associates actually pose the problem of “who gets an obit” in starker terms. Away from the murky realities of geopolitical strife, this can seem much more like a straightforward matter of decorum and taste. Even if the good and the bad are occasionally buried in the same cemeteries, should they be accorded the same kind of attention in newsprint?
It depends. When I took over the Times job eight years ago, “no crooks” was the basic deal. It was struck, I think, after a previous editor of the paper had been given a hard time at a dinner party over an obituary for Buster Edwards, one of the villains involved in the “Great Train Robbery” of 1963. I suspect that if I had been editing the pages at the time, I might have been tempted to argue in Edwards’ case that a man who had not only served his time in jail, but been played by Phil Collins in a film of his life, had become part of the culture and anyway had been punished enough (not least by Mr. Collins’ terrible acting). There was a strong case for having him on the page.
Be that as it may, with the “no crooks” policy firmly in place, The Times was then unable to run obituaries of the Kray twins, perhaps the most notorious British villains in half a century. Their demise was covered only in the news and feature pages, and that seemed—still seems—absurd to me. In their violent heyday, Ron and Reggie Kray enjoyed an unsavory cachet not unlike that of the Chicago mobsters a few decades before. Photographed with everyone from actresses and pop stars to Members of Parliament, they were low-rent celebrities and grubby icons of a London that was only just starting to swing. In retrospect—and retrospect is what obituaries do, after all—the Krays’ significance as icons far outweighs whatever significance they may once have had as (pretty low-grade and provincial) vicious thugs. Their tawdry glamor says as much about the changing world in which they lived as it does about them. One couldn’t write the social history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s without including them, so they should have been on the obituary page.
Using our failure over the Kray twins as an example, I was eventually able to get the policy changed and persuade a new Times editor that we should run an obituary of the New York mafioso John Gotti. But I was subsequently unable to convince the editor’s deputy (who happened to be in charge on both days) that we should publish an obituary of Charles Kray, the twins’ older brother, or that gang leader-turned-children’s author Stanley “Tookie” Williams might have a claim on some of our space. Arguments from social history were just as strong in both those cases, I think.
I would have to admit, though, that a similar argument was just as strong in the case of child murderer Myra Hindley. She, too, was a terrible sort of icon, her grim police “wanted” photograph so horribly familiar that it was even reworked, Warhol-style, by young British artists seeking to shock. More tellingly, she became a focus for three decades’ worth of passionate argument about punishment, rehabilitation and penal reform. There was certainly a case to be made for her appearance on the page. Yet I didn’t for a moment want to make it. Taste? Decorum? Gut reaction? I don’t know.
Hindley did receive long, thoughtful obituaries in two other British papers, the Guardian and the Independent. The Daily Telegraph, like The Times, chose to leave her to features and news. Zarqawi, in contrast, was on the obituary pages of all four “serious” British papers—but not, I think, of any comparable newspaper in the United States.
All those positions are defensible. In the end, I’m not sure that one can make many clear-cut rules. Lives, and deaths, are untidy things, and any carefully formulated policy will soon get tangled up in inconsistencies and contradictions. What, then, of de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that? It’s not clear how sensible a dictum that ever was. One of Dr. Johnson’s correspondents, Herbert Croft, thought it appeared to “savor more of female weakness than of manly reason.” He suggested that, since “censure is not heard beneath the tomb any more than praise”, a more rational approach might be, De mortuis nil nisi verum, de vivis nil nisi bonum. That would certainly make for a more civil society.
Polly Toynbee, granddaughter of Arnold Toynbee and one of the most influential liberal voices in the British press, made a similar point in more robustly modern terms: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a good enough maxim if it means you should not stamp on the libel-free grave of someone you never dared rubbish face to face in life.” But Toynbee, a famously pugnacious rubbisher of the living, face to face, saw no reason to give up on a good feud just because the other party to it was now dead. In a country that has seemed, since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to fall prey with alarming frequency to extravagant displays of maudlin collective emotion whenever anyone halfway prominent has died, there’s something healthy about that.
Of course, the fact that British and American newspapers do now run obituaries for important villains is proof in itself that obituaries are not always paeans of praise, just as the handful of readers’ complaints on such occasions proves that something is not quite self-evident about the propriety of that fact. The power of the context, the place of obituaries within rituals of remembrance and commemoration, is what confuses things. In that context, how you write about someone is less problematic and politically charged than the initial decision to put them (or not put them) on the page at all.
In dealing with despots, The Times has a reasonable record of getting it right. I think we were broadly right on Hitler, Stalin and most of those I’ve mentioned, with only a rather shamefully uncritical piece on Mao to give cause for embarrassment. In all of those cases, the paper’s verdict was no less clear for being couched in balanced or even understated terms. When the Zarqawi obituary first came in from its author, it opened with emotive references to Josef Mengele and Genghis Khan. I struck them out. Tell the story straight and the judgment will come clear, is my approach.
Oddly enough, it’s in dealing with non-villains that nil nisi bonum becomes a real point of contention. Conservatively minded American friends were angered by the New York Times obituary of Caspar Weinberger, just as they had been angered by the treatment of President Reagan after his death. In part this was just another manifestation of their endless frustration with the regional monopolies of the American press and the tendency of the New York Times to speak as if it were the conscience of the nation, or even of the world. By way of contrast, buyers of British newspapers expect them to be more politically committed, but also more modest in their self-assessment and aims.
In Britain, even more oddly, it’s the less public figures who can cause difficulties. My predecessor, a keen advocate of women’s ordination in the Church of England, wrote an obituary of a semi-obscure suffragan bishop who was firmly opposed to women priests. The obituary was so hostile that it was denounced at the man’s funeral by the Bishop of London from the pulpit of St. Paul’s, and the congregation of 2,500 burst into spontaneous applause.
My predecessor was asking for trouble, having failed even to protect himself with euphemisms. The obituarist’s repertoire of euphemisms may now be a rather tired old joke to many of us, but for most readers it still gets the job done. We know the drill: For “convivial” read drunk, for “forthright” bully, for “raconteur” bore. And, of course, we all understand what “he never married” means.
It is possible, however, to tell it like it is without causing offense and without resorting to that well-worn comic routine. Years ago, I wrote an obituary of an academic I had known. He drank too much, wrote next to nothing, kept his teaching to a minimum, made women uncomfortable by being either overattentive or hostile and rude. People who knew him and disliked him thought I’d nailed him pretty well. But his widow rang to thank me for writing such a sympathetic piece. It was therefore a job well done, and of course it made me feel slightly ashamed.
Obituaries, whether their writers and editors and readers like it or not, are peculiar things, something of a journalistic special case. That’s what makes them so rewarding, and difficult. The veteran British journalist Donald Trelford, editor for many years of the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, tells a story from the early part of his career, when he was appointed editor of a paper in Malawi. He was alarmed to discover that there was no advance obituary on file for the country’s president, Dr. Hastings Banda. He commissioned a piece and on delivery went to have it set in standing type, ready for use should the occasion arise—or Banda descend, depending on how one wants to put it. The African printers in the composing room refused to handle it, explaining politely that it was considered unlucky in their culture to talk or write in this way about a living person as if he were dead.
That’s a surprisingly widespread view. You don’t need to go to Africa to hear it expressed. I once offered some obituary work to a very distinguished British music critic who had just been sacked by another paper after more than thirty years of loyal service. He reacted as if I’d made an improper suggestion: “I do not care for obituaries”, he said, giving that last noun its full five syllables (and his main verb almost as many), in the tones of Lady Bracknell confronted by a socially unacceptable item of luggage.
The converse of this is almost as unsettling. What might be described as an obituaries cult has sprung up in recent years. It’s particularly active in the United States. There are conferences, websites, discussion groups, newspaper articles and books dedicated to a celebration—half-morbid, half-humorous—of the obituarist’s curious craft. Marilyn Johnson’s nicely written 2006 volume, The Dead Beat, is the latest and, well, liveliest example, full of anecdotes about reporters in Alaska or Idaho who revel in nicknames such as Black Mariah and Doctor Death, all illustrated with photographs of obituary editors (some quite respectable) posing amid tombstones, dressed in obligatory black.
I’m not complaining, even if I want no part of this myself. The enthusiasm of Johnson and her friends has given the obituary what one might call a new lease on life. Yet I can’t help wondering if their approach to the subject isn’t really just another expression of the African printers’ superstition or the British music critic’s lofty distaste. The cheery little industry that celebrates the obituary-as-entertainment reminds me of the view of sex one finds in those old British seaside postcards, with their terrible suggestive puns and off-color visual jokes. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. The chortling pleasure masks a deep uncertainty.
One thing, however, seems certain enough: The editors of obituary pages themselves almost never rank high enough to qualify for a feature obituary. That is a good thing, because it demonstrates what S. J. Perelman once said about immortality—“a chancy matter, subject to the caprice of the unborn.” Those whose job it is to remark on fame should surely recuse themselves from that game.