Entry from August 21, 2008

As something of a connoisseur of newspaper obituaries, I have gradually come to believe that the inclusion in them of the deceased’s cause of death is a mistake, a bit of journalistic pandering to the vulgar curiosity of the reader which detracts from the real purpose of an obit, which is to celebrate a life. I freely admit that I have such curiosity too — and the older I get, the more I want to know both the decedent’s age and the cause of death — but I now think that it is bad for me to know at least the latter. It encourages me in the oddly comforting but quite irrational belief that, without this cancer or heart condition or kidney failure, the dead man or woman would not have died but have lived forever. Everybody dies of something, and what you die of is only important in the short term, not in the perspective of a life. It’s fine to express your regrets about it if you are consoling the bereaved. But the obituarist is not addressing the bereaved but those who once shared the world with the one who has left it, and who want to know about the place he filled in it, not what took him off.

It is also the way to guarantee that every death is seen in the context of misfortune and defeat, rather fulfilment and consummation, which it is at the very heart of the idea of the obituary to suggest. British obituaries are more and more frequently adopting the practice, like so many other American bad habits that have crossed the Atlantic — most of them to do with education — of including the cause of death, but you still see obituaries that don’t. One, which appeared in the London Daily Telegraph on Tuesday was of an ordinary London bobby named John Johnson who nevertheless gained a tremendous reputation and widespread love and respect among the mostly multi-ethnic south London communities where he patrolled and twice won the Metropolitan Police Community Policeman of the Year award. Though he died at only 52, the cause of his death was not given. Instead, we learned only about his life:

The cheery figure of Johnson on his bicycle was well-known to the residents of Battersea, whom he would visit for a cup of tea or coffee, or even a drink. Many of them became his firm friends. Johnson was no ordinary community policeman. He had attended Oxford University, and was a deeply cultured man with a love of books, opera, theatre and the arts in general. He was not overlooked for promotion, but made it clear to his superiors that he was not interested in anything other than serving the community of Battersea as the type of policeman seldom seen for more than a generation. His popularity was such that both local papers containing reports of his death sold out within hours of appearing on the street.

Interestingly, and whether related or not, the obituary also contained another old-fashioned sort of reticence, since of the late P.C. Johnson’s family it only noted that “he was unmarried.” Traditionally, in the euphemistic lexicon of the British obituary, this would have been taken to mean that he was a homosexual, but now that gay marriage has come to Britain we can presumably no longer read that meaning into it. Now, the point of saying he was unmarried must be precisely not to identify him as gay, but to say that his sexual life, like his cause of death, is (a) none of your business and (b) not germane to the meaning of his life — which we sort of knew anyway, except that we have grown too accustomed to having our curiosity satisfied.

Congratulations, then, to whichever of his survivors declined to furnish the obituarist with either piece of information — or to the obituarist for not publishing it — and so making it possible for him to have a wholly admiring and even inspirational obituary. It’s not just that the additional information would have been a violation of P.C. Johnson’s privacy — though I think many people would probably still regard it as that — but because in some measure it would have been to define him as his disease, and to make the story of his life the story of his death. Who wants that? Actually, there are some people who do. They are the ones who have made a living out of their deaths before they die: the cancer sufferers, for instance, who write about their battles with the disease. But would they feel the same way if they thought they had other accomplishments worthy of note before they were taken ill?

As it happened, the same day that P.C. Johnson’s obituary appeared in the Telegraph, our own New York Times ran the obituary of Leroy Sievers, a man who died at almost the same age (53) but who made of his dying what was almost the only thing worth recording about his life. It was mentioned that he was a television news producer for “Nightline” and a contributor to NPR, but nothing in that part of his obituary suggested any reason why the Times would have noticed his passing to the tune of nearly 500 words. No, his claim on the attention of that paper’s readers was pretty clearly limited to the fact that his contributions to NPR had all been about his battle with colon cancer. He had even produced a daily blog titled “My Cancer.” You can go to the website (www.npr.org) and read it. It is very poignant. But it might also make you feel, at least if you’re anything like me, just a bit resentful at having such an unwanted and unnecessary intimacy with a stranger thrust upon you. You can’t be quite unaware that it was by turning his own death into a journalistic property that he won his slot on The Times’s obituary page.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum, as they used to say. That maxim had been illustrated a few days earlier in the obituary in The Times of London of the “brutalist” architect, Rodney Gordon, designer of the building once voted the third ugliest in Europe, the Tricorn shopping center in Portsmouth, England. Take it from me, the award was well-deserved. In fact, as one who lived in Portsmouth for a number of years and had every day to look at the hideous pile, since torn down, I often wondered what could have been so ghastly as to have taken the gold and silver medals if this had won only bronze. In other words, I have no sympathy at all either for the late Mr Gordon or for brutalist architecture. And yet I am glad that The Times was willing to use the occasion of his obituary to publish a spirited defense of the style from an anonymous correspondent. I was not persuaded by his arguments, but I was able to look at the life of a man whose art I wholly detested with a certain respect and appreciation. It was not a detestable thing, at least, to have been Rodney Gordon — as, indeed, it is not to be most people. Showing us how they came to be what they were and what their lives were for ought to be the task of an obituary writer, not merely recording their passing and regretting the contingency by which they happened to cease to be.

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