Something dreadful is happening to the generation that insisted, “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”
Not only are baby boomers getting old, many of them are hearing bad news from their doctors. And as with everything else that has happened to them – careers, marriage, children, divorce – they are obsessing about their mortality, and often in public .
Many of them are even preparing pre-death testimonials so that they can control their posthumous images.
“Certain writers tell themselves stories in order to die,” literary critic Jeffrey Berman argues in his forthcoming book, Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life . “Writing becomes, for them, an act of self-creation amidst the process of self-extinction.”
Mr. Berman, an early boomer who had his own collision with eternity when he was hit by a car while researching his book, says people who write about their impending deaths “speak to us from beyond the grave, and they remain living for as long as we reflect on their words.”
Such a first-person twist can come as a shock to traditionalists who expect deaths to be recorded with journalistic objectivity. But anybody who has delved into the history of obituaries, as I have in my recent book, Working the Dead Beat: Fifty Lives that Changed Canada , knows that obituary styles are as mutable as the times in which they are written.
When the Duke of Wellington died in 1852, his massive 40,000-word obituary ran over several dense pages on two successive days in The Times of London. By the middle of the last century, both the subjects and the style of obituaries had broadened and loosened up to include advance interviews with the subject and his (it was still mostly men who got the attention) associates.
Anecdotal accounts began appearing in the 1980s about ordinary people with odd occupations, survivors of natural disasters, or inventors of household products such as Krazy Glue or Cheezies. Democratizing obituaries was a natural outcome of a society that was becoming more egalitarian, but it also spawned the attitude that every passing should be noted, if not by a journalist, then by family or friends in an effusive death notice or short narrative essay.
The print mould itself was smashed by The New York Times in January, 2007, when it ran a video on its obituary website in which widely syndicated columnist Art Buchwald delivered his ultimate punchline: “I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.”
Several months later, charismatic computer scientist Randy Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture,” about his impending death from pancreatic cancer.
The inspirational talk, which was uploaded to YouTube and subsequently adapted into a mega-selling book, transformed him into a celebrity philosopher and guaranteed him huge obituaries around the world, not for his accomplishments but for the pathos of his premature death.
Since then, we have seen a rash of books in which boomers abruptly confront life’s final moments, including the late Canadian writer David Rakoff in Half-Empty and the acclaimed Mortality , a collection of Christopher Hitchens’s magazine pieces about his precipitous demise.
Mr. Hitchens was beginning a book tour for his memoir, Hitch-22 , when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer in June, 2010. As he went on to write, “There is no such thing as Stage 5.” Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, persuaded Mr. Hitchens to write about his sudden exile “from the country of the well.”
A lot of death literature is narcissistic. Born from a desperate attempt to define a legacy and to create empathy for a foreshortened life and a gruesome death, it may have no resonance beyond a prurient curiosity. Such personal tales can’t substitute for an obituary – a dispassionate assessment of a life and career in the context of its times.
However, having interviewed many people for anticipated obituaries, I have learned that most dying people know all too well what is happening to them and are more than willing to talk about their emotions and their lives. It is those around them – close family and friends – who are squeamish. That’s why interviews, such as the Art Buchwald video, are useful enhancements to traditional obituaries.