A Dying Art

obitsMy introduction as “an obituarist” at a party in Sydney more than a decade ago to Dame Maggie Smith provoked a look of deep disdain. Even in the days before her portrayal of the formidable Dowager Countess of Downton, nobody did disdain as well as Dame Maggie. One had to remind her that the obituary is not about wallowing in death; it’s about celebration of life. True, the life must be spent before we can properly appreciate it but the death is, if anything, a catalyst to record that life.

Perceptions of the Art of Obituary have changed over the last few decades. In fact exactly thirty years ago, the splendid (and alas now late) Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd transformed the genre on becoming obituaries editor of the London Daily Telegraph. On his appointment he observed, “many of my acquaintance appeared to regard me with a mixture of pity and contempt … the obits desk was the journalistic equivalent of Outer Siberia”.

His inspiration came from Roy Dotrice’s West End performance seven years before in Brief Lives. Dotrice, as the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey, read out a dull formulaic entry about a barrister, shut the book with a “Pshaw” and turned to the audience: “He got more by his prick than his practice.”

It was a blinding light for Massingberd, who resolved then to dedicate himself “to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch”. Abandoning the hushed voice, he believed it was possible “to give a genuine assessment in exactly the same way as you might if you were writing a profile on a living person”.

The other ingredient was “a sympathetic acceptance, even celebration, of someone’s foibles and faults”. His obits were “anonymous, formal, detached, deadpan if you like, affording satisfaction if necessary between the lines, to both friends and foes of the deceased”. He managed this by refining the art of the euphemism. In his taxonomy, “didn’t suffer fools gladly” translated as “complete bastard”, “gave colourful accounts of his exploits” meant “liar”, “powerful negotiator” suggested “bully”, and “tireless raconteur” signalled “crashing bore”. A notorious crook was judged “not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City”.

His subjects from his days at Burke’s provided superb copy. There was the 9th Earl of St Germans who listed his recreations as “huntin’ the slipper, shootin’ a line, fishin’ for compliments”; and Sir Athol Oakeley, Bart, heavyweight wrestling champion of Europe in 1932 who, following the prescription of the giant wrestler Hackenschmidt, built himself up on eleven pints of milk three times a day for three years, only to be told when he met the author later that the quantity had been a misprint. This fondness for the aristocracy earned Massingberd the title “Massivesnob” from Private Eye, and occasionally (and much to his delight) “Massivepecker”.

But his coverage was in fact more democratic. The fourth of his collection of lives was devoted entirely to rogues and included Ronnie Kray, the Mafia bosses Anthony “Fat Man” Salerno and Vincent “Big Vinnie” Teresa; even Queensland’s colossus of roads, Russ Hinze.

While most of the obituaries were written by a like-minded team they all bore Massingberd’s mark. He may have had a weakness for a good story but he also had a penchant for accuracy and the mot juste. With Sir Athol, Hugh needed to confirm how large he was. He called the undertaker, who replied, “I’ll just go and measure him.” One life he did write, that of Liberace, has become a classic of the genre.

Obituaries rarely dwell on the cause of death, although Massingberd argued with the paper’s editor that it should. The day after the editor agreed, Massingberd reported that “someone had died of a penile implant which had imploded”. The subject was dropped.

Even after his retirement as editor in 1994, his influence remained, not just at the Telegraph, but in newspapers throughout the English-speaking world, buoyed by the extraordinary success of Massingberd’s publication of six collections of the paper’s obituaries.

There were two other midwives hovering over that rebirth in 1986. One was James Fergusson, who began producing, for the newly established Independent newspaper, elegantly written narratives with striking photographs and a discrete bio-box containing dates, marriages and offspring that freed his writers from the dead hand of the formulaic approach. At about the same time, at the Times, John Grigg (formerly Lord Altrincham and no stranger to the breaking of taboos), carried an obituary of the ballerino Sir Robert Helpmann, claiming Sir Robert was “a homosexual of the proselytising kind’’. Whether or not it was true, it had the liberating effect of ridding the art of the “dead can do no wrong” maxim by allowing frankness in discussing the private lives of subjects.

The anecdote can say so much in a few sentences about one’s subject; more than a string of adjectives can ever do. Take Dame Roma Mitchell, a remarkable Australian, the country’s first superior court judge and first female governor. Roma’s father Harold Mitchell was killed in France in 1918 and young Roma was with her mother when the telegram confirming his death arrived. Roma then went, as usual, to greet her elder sister from school along the street and broke the news to her. When her mother later asked her why she had told her sister, Roma replied, “I wanted to save you.” She was then only four.

No one claiming to be an obituarist can avoid recalling the life of our heroes, especially as so many reached their end along with the century. During research on the life of a much decorated Second World War soldier who settled in Queensland in the 1960s, a fellow officer, by then an old major living in the home counties, confided, “He fell in love with a princess from Siam, you know. It wouldn’t do … He was brave as a lion but a mad rooter. We all were. You know with our regiment it was either VC or VD.”

These days when the great and the good live so long, it often means that subjects score fewer than ten words for every year of their life: Brooke Astor, 105; and Sir George Fisher, the titan of MIM, who at 104 was Australia’s oldest knight. When someone has led such a long, full, rich life, there seems no need to say what killed him. There is a certain squeamishness among obituarists about cause of death. The Times had a policy not to mention it for subjects over seventy. Yet the Victorians, in keeping with their morbid obsession with death, went into excruciating detail. In 1870 Charles Dickens’s last hours were described thus: “The pupil of the right eye was much dilated, that of the left contracted, the breathing stertorous, the limbs flaccid until half an hour before death, when some convulsion occurred.”

Like businessmen, politicians do not generally generate good copy. But Sir James Killen was a marvellous exception. Returning to the backbench in 1971 when William McMahon became leader, Sir James could not bear him; or, in obitspeak, “There was a distinct lack of sympathy between the two.” Killen likened the balding, diminutive, big-eared McMahon to a “Volkswagen with two doors open” and when he once overheard McMahon telling a group that he was his own worst enemy, Killen chirped up, “Not while I’m alive.”

The wit of Pat Buckley, the ultimate New Yorker, fashion plate, fundraiser and wife of William F., was more of the mordant variety but just as irresistible. After J.K. Galbraith brought Teddy Kennedy to visit the Buckleys at their winter house in Switzerland, Kennedy asked if he could borrow a car to go back to Gstaad. Pat said, “Certainly not—there are three bridges between here and Gstaad.” Even her world-weariness was funny. “Life is very difficult and everything kills you,” she once said. “The only thing you can do nowadays is sit fully clothed in the woods and eat fruit.”

Perhaps a susceptibility for nostalgia drives both obituarist and reader. There was Dolly Dyer, devoted partner of Pick-a-Box Bob. In 1960, following the scripted routine, Bob asked: “Who’s our next contestant, Dolly?” She responded, “Bob, this is Barry Jones, a teacher from Caulfield.”

In 1989, some years after Bob’s death, she met two other Queensland retirees, Les and Rae Rider. The three began to attend Les Salmon’s Danceland Ballroom at Coolangatta. Within a few years, Dolly, partnered by Les (he also partnered Rae), was winning gold medals in competitions. For the next decade, Dolly danced up to five days a week, skilfully executing the cha cha, the rhumba, the jive, the pasodoble and Barclay blues—tripping the light fantastic, yet eschewing the limelight. She entertained nursing-home patients, some not much older than herself, and took up marathon walking, surviving Bob by two decades.

There is no rhyme or reason to the lives that obits editors choose to people their pages. Increasingly, lives lived entirely out of the spotlight are being celebrated. None is “ordinary”—most lives are remarkable. Bill McDonald, obits editor at the New York Times, has said:

When we look to see whether someone had made a newsworthy impact in some way—who “made a wrinkle in the social fabric” … we don’t equate significance with fame. In point of fact, 9 out of 10 people we write about are indeed not household names … But that doesn’t negate their importance. Most made their marks in quiet ways, out of the public limelight, but they still made a mark, possibly on your life and mine.

The so-called “great and good” can sometimes be challenging subjects to bring to life. Their obits can end up as nothing but a litany of dates, appointments, memberships, titles and honours. To prevent them reading like a Who’s Who entry, a good anecdote is essential. There was Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor, Quinton Hogg, Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, who performed the ceremonial aspects of his role with aplomb. There is a story of him proceeding through Westminster, bewigged and gowned, preceded by his mace-bearer and followed by his train-bearer, when he saw his brother and called out: “Neil!” A number of American tourists immediately fell to their knees.

The portraitist Sir William Dargie was staying with his friend, Queensland jurist Sir Edward Williams, at the Williams family house in Brisbane. In his brilliant breezy way, Sir Edward introduced his guest to his gardener, “Jack, this is the painter Bill Dargie.” Rubbing his chin and looking around the kitchen, Jack asked: “Do yah reckon you could do my place too?” Dargie merely smiled. This encounter could probably have happened only in Australia.

Another great Australian was Queensland and Wallaby rugby coach Bob Templeton, whose career spanned almost half the century and four generations of players. Templeton’s approach was to perfect the basics, working relentlessly on skills, particularly with the forwards, as well as looking at diet, fitness and developing the players’ upper body strength. He was celebrated for the formulation of his six P’s principle: “Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”. A perfect formulation for obituarists too.

In Life After Death (2006), his fascinating work on the Art of the Obituary, Dr Nigel Starck traces the first obituary back to 1622—a brief account of the life of Captain Andrew Shilling, killed in a battle with the Portuguese in the Persian Gulf. Another revelation is that Benjamin Franklin ran a good line in obits when he edited and owned the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Dr Starck has also uncovered the first Australian obituary—James Bloodworth, the building superintendent in New South Wales, published in the Sydney Gazette on March 25, 1804. It was a brief assessment of the man but it was, at least, a start. By 1882 the Sydney Morning Herald was recalling the life of Canon Thomas Smith, “blessed with extraordinary powers of oratory … expired on Saturday last after suffering prolonged ‘disease of the kidneys’ and ‘an unfortunate disagreement with his bishop’”. The art then seemed to fall into a coma. The Times of London and the New York Times pressed on but otherwise only famous deaths were recorded and then they were dealt with under news or features.

The view of surviving family is, of course, significant and where the lives are obscure ones, it is difficult to defy their wishes when one has relied so heavily on material from them and they are so often in the grip of grief and distress. A widow of a racing-car driver completely lost it when she read in a draft obituary a description of his first wife as “vivacious”. She shared “the fact” that her predecessor had slept with every man who had got behind the wheel of a racing car. With another life, the daughter of a designer, disappointed at the modesty of her father’s antecedents, suggested, “Couldn’t you say that his father owned as well as managed the circus?” But sympathy cannot be allowed to reduce an obituary to a eulogy. And while an obituary cannot possibly equal the authority and scholarship of an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, it must be accurate and it must be honest (even if seen in a kindly light).

Given that many adults who survived the Second World War were facing mortality as the century ended, some extraordinary life stories emerged. Henry Pollack was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1922. He graduated in 1939 and the same year, as German bombers flew overhead, he left his parents in Lodz for Vilnius, the ancient capital of Lithuania, by then occupied by Russia. Worried about his parents, and at great risk to his own safety, he returned to Lodz to find they had left for Warsaw some weeks before. In 1942 a postcard reached him, via the Red Cross, from his mother in Warsaw, gloriously happy that he had made it to Australia, urging him to “learn a trade, be a cobbler, a welder, as long as you can earn your living. Don’t be a Luftmensch.”

He never heard from his parents again and would discover later that as his mother was writing to him, in March 1942, people were being loaded onto trains to be taken to Treblinka. In 1989 (by then he had founded the huge construction firm Mirvac), he made an emotional return to Poland. His family home in Lodz had disappeared, replaced by a huge concrete apartment block. His school, however, was still there and he climbed the stairs to his old classroom, empty for the holidays. He called out, in turn, the names of all eleven Jewish boys in his class, and waited for a response. Silence. When he came to his own name, he shouted, in a mixture of defiance and despair, “Here!”

With lives like these, is it any wonder that the popularity of obits took hold and papers in the United States and Australia began to dedicate daily pages to them?

The Australian began in 1993 with the Time & Tide page, mixing pieces from the Times with Australian lives by staff writers and contributors. In 1996 the Sydney Morning Herald began to carry lives as a daily feature. Six years later, Suzy Baldwin rechristened her page “This Life” and, with eye-catching photographs and sympathetically edited text, produced the most attractive page in the country. The Age’s Gerry Carman sustained the art for Melbourne readers.

In 2003 the Courier Mail joined the ranks of quality metropolitan papers with a regular obituaries page. It almost immediately attracted some controversy when it featured the life of Jack Warren, identified as “Criminal” and described in the narrative as having been arrested in 1994 at the age of seventy in relation to Australia’s biggest cannabis haul. Some readers claimed he was unfit to appear in an obit, but as Greg Chamberlin, the Courier’s obits editor, put it, “If Ronnie Biggs dies, you’d expect to read about him, and this guy is much the same—only he’s from our area.” The Great Train Robber was, in fact, universally remembered when he died in 2013. And, only weeks ago when the English High Court finally declared him dead—forty-two years after his disappearance—the heavy-drinking, gambling, mistaking-his-children’s-nanny-for-his-wife 7th Earl of Lucan was accorded a Times obituary.

One can never be too cautious about a premature obit. Dr Starck recounts the story in 2001 of Dorothy Fay Ritter, “an actress best remembered for riding the range with Buck Jones in westerns made during the 1930s”. A member of staff at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in California, where she was a patient, saw that her bed was vacant and asked where Dorothy Fay was. On hearing the answer “She’s gone” she promptly rang an obituarist pal. Dorothy Fay’s obituary was published in London’s Telegraph before it was discovered that she had only “gone” to another wing of the hospital. She lived for another few years.

The British quality press—Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent—continue their daily offering of lives. The Economist too has, since 1995, published a weekly life, in under 1000 words—as elegant as they are eclectic: from John Paul II to Pamela Harriman; from Marcel Marceau to Alex the African Grey Parrot.

The renaissance of the art in Australia at the turn of the century led Time magazine to observe that the Australian obituary was “as lively as Lazarus”. But Lazarus has begun to relapse. The tide has gone out at the pioneering Australian, with regular obits replaced by a far cheaper alternative—a full page of national weather. The Courier Mail no longer pays contributors and its page is now largely given over to copy from grieving survivors and amateurs. While the Sydney Morning Herald’s commitment has wavered from six-days-a-week coverage, it has endured—due to a succession of enthusiastic and dedicated editors, Tony Stephens and Harriet Veitch, themselves gifted obituarists.

This liveliest of arts deserves resuscitating. Lazarus needs a triple bypass.

Mark McGinness has written obituaries for a number of publications, including Quadrant.


  • [email protected]

    I used to flick right past the obituary page to areas I then regarded as of greater interest.
    In those “good ole days” nothing satisfied like a weekend newspaper when journalism was much in evidence.
    As the American Press Institute defined it journalism “is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information”.
    I disagree with the definition…especially the “creating” part as I believe this is largely the real reason behind the disappearing print numbers worldwide.
    I like so many others subscribe to the Sergeant Friday mantra: “Just the facts ma’am” confident in being able to form my own conclusions.
    But to get to the point…the above article by Mark McGinness was a very entertaining read.
    My employer had me on a global roundabout for some three decades and thus I had access to many newspapers at local prices and it was during the last decade or two that I discovered the Obituary Page and realised the journalistic endeavour that that page represented.
    Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd: transformed the genre on becoming obituaries editor of the London Daily Telegraph. On his appointment he observed, “many of my acquaintance appeared to regard me with a mixture of pity and contempt … the obits desk was the journalistic equivalent of Outer Siberia”.

  • [email protected]

    …oops…wrong button…
    I imagine that that observation would be even more valid today.
    Personally I think that the Obits Page would be the most demanding assignment in the newspaper and one that only a real journalist would be capable of…never mind enjoy doing.
    Great read.
    Tips me lid , Sir

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