What will they say when you’re gone?

By WittyKnitter

I often read the obituaries in the Sydney Morning Herald. When I first came to Australia (1998), alongside the usual parade of worthies, local and international, there would be a fair sprinkling (especially in the weekend edition) of rich eccentric British people – minor royals, members of the landed gentry, toffs of various kinds – often people who had led an interesting life during the wars, revolutions and social change of the 20th century. Spies, courtesans, bolters (women who leave their families, see Love in a Cold Climate), ne’er-do-wells and wastrels. People who, often, emigrated to countries outside the UK in order to live without the restraints of their family and their upbringing – some of them, without a doubt, being paid by their families to stay away: remittance men. (Were there any remittance women?)

It may be that the particular eccentric strain in British life that created these people and made them stand out in their world is dying out – literally. It’s not so unusual these days to fly your own plane, marry four times, have a long-term relationship with someone who is married to someone else, to be bisexual or live in a homosexual relationship or ‘in sin’ – even in a menage-a-trois. The obits in the Herald these days are usually of people thought of as Australian (albeit not always recently resident) who have done at least one thing in their lives to make them noteworthy and of interest to the general population, or of well-known international figures.

As I’ve never worked in a newspaper, I’m not clear whether obits are still kept on file for well-known local people, and updated from time to time, so that a store of useful information is available when they die, but I think that’s probably a good policy. The obit for Gavin Brown, who died suddenly over Christmas at the age of 69, captured the spirit of the man but had many small errors, and was probably not constructed during the time he was in the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney some years ago (when contemporary information could be obtained accurately), but rather from interviews with his grieving family. It may feel ghoulish to keep archives of local worthies, but it really does them (and journalists) a favour when an obituary has to be written at short notice.

Obits have a particularly gendered slant: of the 28 currently available on the smh site one is of a couple and four are of women – and only two of those are for single women whose working lives made them eligible for inclusion; one being of a hero in the very common ‘adventurous man’ style of obit writing. (The other one, incidentally, is a classic of the genre – it isn’t written by a member of the family, nor is it written by a journalist presumably acting on received information, but by a skilled journalist who had known his subject well, personally, over many years. What is not said, but expressed between the lines, made me laugh out loud. It’s well worth a read.) Of course, most people who die are older, and most older women didn’t have easy career opportunities. The balance in the gender of obituary subjects might change in the next decades as female baby boomers, more of whom had careers that brought them into the public eye, die in greater numbers. But I suspect most obituaries will continue to be written about Important Men.

I might be wrong.  I’ve recently noticed a trend toward obits about people who are truly ordinary – last weekend there was one about an elderly Manly couple who had been married for 60 years, had died within hours of each other and whom, it was claimed as their chief virtue, were deeply ordinary: he had worked as a correspondence clerk in a public utility for 35 years, she as a typist in the Public Service for 20 years; they had raised two children and had two great-grandchildren. Another recent one was about the wife of a senior university staff member who’d retired and died many years ago – there was little out of the ordinary about her life as it was portrayed in the Herald: the most risqué thing reported was that she had found the dinners she had had to attend with her husband to be tedious. Another one on a woman reported that after marrying an airline executive in 1947 she had “travelled the world but never gave up her Australian citizenship and remained a Homebush girl at heart.” And there was one about a woman who was rescued from the Holocaust by Schindler, due to her husband’s connections, and eventually came to settle in Australia.

So I am wondering how papers decide who gets obits these days. Are they attempting to even up the gender balance by reporting the lives of ‘ordinary’ women, or to report the lives of ‘ordinary Australians’ more? And do any readers expect to be the subject of an obituary eventually? (Not for a long time yet, I hope!) And, most importantly, what would you like it to say?


  1. Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    WN, I too read the SMH obits. They are essential to my writing.

    To answer LE’s question, I think that part of the reason for inclusion is simply someone prepared to write, family or otherwise. However, I also suspect (I do not know) that the paper strives for what it perceives as a degree of balance.

    I don’t think that there is any shortage of interesting people to write about, although like you WN I am attracted to British eccentricty! However, we do have lots of continuing examples here.

  2. kvd
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    This article from The Australian in 2006 reviews a book about this subject. Amongst other comments, it supports WN’s observation of fewer female subjects:

    Starck looks at what it takes to make it to the obituary page. He points out that women are in a minority of about one to four. Then he suggests six areas that may attract an editor: fame, association with fame, single acts of notoriety, heroism, villainy and eccentricity. Perhaps some of these criteria tend to exclude women, with the exception of those wives or mistresses of famous men, in which case it can be an excuse to revisit the life of the man, if deceased.

    The book actually sounds like an interesting read – and I am not on commission.

  3. desipis
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    So I am wondering how papers decide who gets obits these days.

    I assume they’ll include obits for anyone who has someone willing to pay for it. The rest of us can just have someone write a facebook update on our account.

  4. desipis
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    And, most importantly, what would you like it to say?

    To be honest, I’m not sure I care much about what people who didn’t know me that well while I was alive think about me after I’m gone. If I’ve made a real impact on peoples lives then I’ll be remembered for the person I was (maybe I’m just too young).

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Desipis, you will be good fodder for worms eventually, so make the best of it while you can, I think.
    In Adelaide the Tiser does obits every so often also, several in a batch, on folk generally at the Gavin Brown end of community life.
    As for the rest of us, many heroic things are done by ordinary people, good friends have told me so I suppose the obits are an extension of the same thing you get with a funeral, where your= remember what was special about a parent or friend, trying to salvage some thing from grief and a no win situation.

  6. Posted January 7, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    You don’t pay for them, Desipis. The paid ones, which aare smaller and are really funeral notices, used to be called Death Notices, are now called Memorials or something – the word ‘death’ is gone, anyway. And they’re available online, and people can make comments on them, although no-one seems to. I had a little glimpse into this a few weeks ago.

  7. Posted January 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    WK, I first recall seeing (London) Daily Telegraph obituaries in the SMH at about the time when Conrad Black had an interest in both papers. The DT ones are celebrated and full of those famous eccentrics.

    I suspect the boil has gone off the great British eccentric, at least as an emblem of the glories of the late regretted empire. There are plenty of different sorts of eccentrics in the sandal wearing Guardian camp, but the DT won’t want to write about them and they aren’t quite such an exportable commodity – for example, we’ve got plenty of oddballs of our own if that is what you want to remember.

    I’m reasonably sure the SMH invites the submission of obits without undertaking to find space for them (gosh, that must involve some delicacy). I am also sure they maintain file obituaries. Otherwise, it’s quite often obvious that the obituary arises from an association with a particular journalist.

  8. ken n
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    What I enjoy most are the obits of interesting people I have never heard of. Not celebrities, not politicians, not bishops – just people (I refuse to use the word “ordinary”) who did things that are worth noting. Not necessarily even worth remembering. Just worth a few minutes reading after they have gone.

  9. Posted January 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    The only obits I enjoy are in the economist… They’ll often explain the field the person was in, or, in the case of a guy who could not lay down memories and had devoted himself to helping others, gave a pretty good summary of the neurology involved.

    Salinger’s obit is worth a read – wonder what you folk think of it – some obit commentators (!?!?) hated it.

  10. Posted January 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Like Marcellous, I’m a fan of the UK DT obits, and admit to knowing their main musical obituary writer personally:


    He is in the process of writing a follow-up book to Starck’s study, but I’m not sure how far along he is as yet. He is a very good writer, although classical musicians and opera singers do provide him with very rich pickings.

    Papers do keep obituaries on file (called ‘stock’ obituaries) but they do have to be checked and updated regularly. That said, if someone drops off the perch unexpectedly, the obituary writers often have to create a piece from scratch, and that’s where errors can creep in.

    I suspect I’ll be the subject of an obituary eventually, although (considering my age), I doubt that any of the papers would have a ‘stock’ one for me, although I could be wrong on that.

  11. Patrick
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I like the Economist’s as well, and they way they often seek to mimick a person’s style. I didn’t mind Salingers, I thought maybe they were too positive given how much I hated Catcher in the Rye but overall I didn’t mind.

    Some of their obits are actually great mini-op-eds.

  12. Posted January 8, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. I know one who /would/ enjoy writing my obit, despite the effort required, if there was a good chance of distribution.

    Yeah, not only enjoy the writing, but the fact it would be immediately useful.

    who? As I explained to my grandson, “your mummy calls her mummy, you call her granma, but I call her something else entirely” (without, of course, saying the actual words)?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Legal Eagle, Mary-Helen Ward and Mary-Helen Ward. Mary-Helen Ward said: Just posted on SkepticLawyer about obituaries: http://bit.ly/f92yfz Light-weight subject to suit the season. 🙂 […]

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