When the flamboyant British publican Kim de la Taste Tickell died in 1990 at 73, his obituary in The Daily Telegraph noted his fastidious criteria for selecting clientele: “ ‘I’m not having south London garage proprietors and their tarts in here,’ he would screech at startled patrons. ‘Out! Out! Out!’ ”
Most readers probably felt they knew Mr. Tickell from that sentence alone, but the obituary went on to reveal that the Tickell Arms served the jeunesse dorée of Cambridge University, that its proprietor wore silver-buckled shoes and that he was sometimes known as “the Basil Fawlty of the Fens.”
The good that men do may be interred with their bones, as Shakespeare wrote – but the best bits live on after them, thanks to the obituary pages. I’d read Roger Ebert’s film reviews for years, but I’d no idea, until I read his obituary, that he’d co-written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, or that he’d once had an epic greedier-than-thou slagging match with Conrad Black, who at that point controlled his newspaper’s purse strings.
Until the tributes started pouring in, I didn’t realize that Ralph Klein had once mistaken the King of Norway for his driver, then bummed a smoke off him. Or that he disliked prayer breakfasts, media complainers and Coke without rum, according to an article in this paper by his former right-hand man, Rod Love. The best memorials are like that: squeezed of pieties, scraped free of sanctimony, a picture of the past that’s barely visible through a fog of cigarette smoke.
Interest in obits is having a bit of a revival – a resurrection, if you will. The best of them whip around the Internet, as with the recent Telegraph obituary of Jungleyes Love, a dreadlocked posh hippie, former witch doctor and purveyor of fossilized animal dung who “for the last 30 years of his life was a fruitarian.” (You might as well eat the bacon, folks. Even three decades of apples won’t keep the reaper from the door.)
I once attended an obituary writers conference, where the attendants, who seemed to subsist on black coffee and blacker humour, sat around trading war stories. Remember the jazz musician who died when his penile implants exploded? Ooo, that was a good one.
They were preoccupied, that year, with the question of who deserved newspaper obits: the unsung and interesting, or the dull but important. “I truly do not care how important you are – but I do care how interesting you are,” Kay Powell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said. She’d just written an obit of a baggage handler so dedicated to his work that he’d lost fingers on the job.
Properly done, obituaries are “biographical essays that set a life in context, pay tribute to achievements, and account for failures and faults,” as Sandra Martin, who has produced many great ones for this paper, wrote in her recent collection, Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada.
Done badly, as with this week’s New York Times obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, they risk offending the world at large (although these days the world is waiting, tongue lolling, for any excuse to take offence). In what has become the great beef stroganoff brouhaha, the Times’ obit was criticized for mentioning Dr. Brill’s culinary skills in the opening sentence – before it mentioned her rather more important facility for keeping satellites in the sky. The Times later deleted the food reference.
I think that, hidden within the Brill controversy, is the reason we’re so fascinated with obits: They’re a door on a world that is fast vanishing, where wars raged and overt sexism, homophobia and racism lurked everywhere. The Times’ obit tells us that Dr. Brill was barred from studying engineering at the University of Manitoba because there were no accommodations for women.
Those people suffered. They flew Spitfires and hunkered down in bomb shelters and learned how to duck and cover when the air-raid sirens went off. They made beef stroganoff, then went to the lab in the days before anyone even thought about “having it all.” Now they’re disappearing. Is it any wonder we want to read about them?
I’m not sure this pallid age will ever turn up a creature to equal Denisa Lady Newborough, whose obituary appeared in the Telegraph in March of 1987. It begins: “Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 79, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things – a whore and a spy – ‘and there were attempts to make me both,’ she once wrote.”
As I say, we shall never see their like again. But at least we can remember them, cracks and all.