Monday, 30 November -0001

I may write obits, but I'm not the angel of death...Honest

Obituary writer Rebecca Wallersteiner gets some worried looks when asked what she does for a living. But don't worry, she says, it's not nearly as ghoulish as it sounds

Would you write my – presumably, very brief – obituary?’ asked Matt, editor of The Lady. Readers, don’t be alarmed: he isn’t planning to depart for the other side just yet.

In fact, he is just one of a number of men of a certain vintage who, upon hearing that I have written obituaries for The Times, have asked me to write theirs.

I remember when, not so long ago, death was taboo and attractive men tended to invite me for drinks rather than to write their obituaries. But now the young seem half in love with death, an obsession expressed via everything from skull jewellery to collecting bizarrely dressed Victorian stuffed animals, which can fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

It is not just the young who are fascinated by death either. Friends tell me that the newspaper obituary pages are the first thing they turn to at breakfast.

Although it is likely that pondering death helps us all to come to terms with its inevitability, obit writers should still expect strange looks when they bring up the subject at dinner parties, coffee mornings or with strangers on the bus. People often comment that they think it is a rather odd and somewhat morbid profession. They look at you with a mixture of pity and fear, as if you might be a vampire, or the angel of death.

But perhaps they are looking at it in the wrong way. When challenged on the subject, I respond that ‘an obit isn’t about someone’s death, but a celebration of their life’.

Others ask if I find it embarrassing to approach the bereaved. I explain that, on the contrary, talking about a loved one’s death to a sympathetic journalist can actually be cathartic and help relatives deal with their loss.

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As a society in general, we remain far removed from death and often prefer not to think about our own, which is unhealthy. Obits can help people to confront dying and live with more zest because of it. An obit is a way to celebrate someone’s achievements, passions and surviving family members.

Writing an obituary is a great responsibility, especially as it is likely to be read by the deceased’s family, friends and neighbours. Fifty years into the future, it could be one of the last remaining records of their life.

It is not very different to writing a profile of a living celebrity, with the added advantage that the dead cannot sue for libel – which gives the writer far more freedom. The founding father of the modern obit was Hugh Massingberd at The Daily Telegraph, who revolutionised the genre by pioneering the anecdotal obit.

Being an obits ed is now considered a plum job, but once upon a time obits were generally dry and factual, and writing them was delegated to apprentice or disgraced journalists: the journalistic equivalent of Siberia. Massingberd realised that composing obituaries was in fact one of the most interesting journalistic jobs. His creed was that it was vital for copy to be ‘a good read, a lively, stimulating story’. The goal is to capture what the person was really like, not just by trotting out their curriculum vitae, but through quirky anecdote and character sketch.

Ethical dilemmas can occur when you encounter juicy stories, beloved by readers but hated by relatives. These can involve secret mistresses, hidden sexual quirks, unusual crimes.

One of the most difficult cases I encountered was when a jealous widow implored me not to mention her husband’s pleasant first wife and his three children by her. I had to resist, since they were also grieving for a loved one.

Another hugely talented individual left enough secret love children to populate a small town. His inexhaustible libido and number of heartbroken mistresses rivalled those of even Casanova.

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Mistresses can present a problem, as they are traditionally welcome neither at the funeral nor in an obituary. However, as the French writer Voltaire once said, ‘To the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe only the truth.’

Obits have their own, enjoyable euphemistic form and code which is easily translated by the seasoned reader. So, in obit-speak, ‘inexhaustible partygoer’ translates as ‘alcoholic’, while ‘tireless raconteur’ really means ‘utter bore’. A ‘ladies’ man’ is an incorrigible philanderer, and if ‘he never married’ he was probably gay. And a ‘free spirit’? Well, they likely never found themselves a proper job.

Some individuals are much easier to depict than others. Artists, poets and creative people are a delight, as they provide a treasure trove of anecdotes and foibles. Academics and business leaders can be hard work, although I never tire of listening to stories of people’s passions and failures. The tone of an obit should remain deadpan and sympathetic – but not sycophantic. A few carefully chosen quotations help illustrate a personality. Above all, an obit needs to be entertaining – and accurate.

It is no secret that The Telegraph, The Times and the BBC have hundreds of obits ‘on the stocks’, ready to be released on a person’s death. Tributes are prepared sometimes years in advance. These have to be revised and refreshed with new facts if the subject continues to live.

Time can radically change perspectives: think of Jimmy Savile. The glowing tributes that appeared after his death in October 2011 had been prepared before the horrifying truth was revealed.

The best obits are written ‘for the shelf’ with the aid of the subject themselves and/or trusted friends. But although obits are about life, not death, composing them with the subject involves facing their (and sometimes your own) uneasy feelings about their demise.

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Some people find this helps them come to terms with the fact that their lives are drawing to a close, owing either to old age or illness. And obituaries help the rest of us, too. Obit fans tell me they read them to check whether they have outlived their friends, or enemies. They confess to feeling a guilty little thrill of excitement upon discovering that they have survived a business or love rival.

As you would expect, very few people have seen their own obit in print – but there have been a few extraordinary exceptions. ‘Cockie’ Hoogterp, second wife of Baron Blixen, and part of Kenya’s Happy Valley set, was astonished when she read a report of her death in a newspaper in 1938. To her great delight she marked all her bills ‘deceased’ and sent them back.

The apologetic editor of the offending newspaper agreed to Cockie’s stipulation that the correction should be published in her own words. These were: ‘Mrs Hoogterp wishes it to be known that she has not yet been screwed in her coffin.’

In fact Cockie lived another 50 years until she died at the age of 96 and her excellent second (and final) obit, written by Hugh Massingberd, entertained readers of The Daily Telegraph on 13 December 1988.

Composing your own obituary can be a great new year exercise to help you decide how you want to live your life and what you need to do to accomplish your goals.

Recently, many legendary figures have landed on our forensic slabs. But it is an odd fact that many subjects of obits written ‘for the shelf’ go on to outlive their writer by years, as if having your obituary written is a rather reliable way of extending your life.

I suspect this would be the case if I were to write the Ed’s. But we don’t want to jinx things, do we?


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