A man I knew very slightly died the other day. I didn't know about it until I flipped to the obituaries. Suddenly, my chest went sag. There, with that familiar, stunning finality, was the photo and the ten paragraphs.
The obituary touched all the routine bases - birthplace and workplace, schools and memberships. It gave the survivors. Finally, apparently out of details to list, it whimpered to an end.
And it failed, as obituaries almost always do.
This man's obituary, like most, was indistinguishable from his resume.He was presented as a butterfly, forever pinned up in two dimensions, when he had clearly spent his life flying around in three.
If the man ever had a sense of humor, or a good backhand, or an Achilles heel, or a lover, you never learned it from this final burst of publicity.
What you got instead was a bunch of detail so shapeless that it couldn't even be sifted accurately for clues.
There was a brother in Erie, Pa., the obituary told us. But what did he do? Was he a soldier of fortune serving as a gondolier on the Erie Canal? Was he younger? Older? Close to his dead brother? Distant?
Not a glimmer of an answer - just a name.
The dead man, who had been a lawyer, spent part of his career on the staff of an agency that represents poor people, his obituary said.
But there was no hint of the kinds of cases he argued, no glimpse of the "texture" of this phase of his career. It sounded as if the dead man had been serving time.
Finally, the obituary stated flatly that the man had achieved a great deal despite his relative youth.
Pretty dangerous ground, if you ask me. Who's to say how much achievement is "a lot" for a lawyer who dies in midcareer? Lawyers themselves would disagree vigorously - as would butchers, bakers and battalion chiefs. So how can an obituary presume to settle the matter?
This is not a cheap-shot knock on either the newspaper that printed this particular obituary (it happened to be the Post), or the man who wrote it. Another writer for another paper traced much the same path, and no obituary writer for any paper would have deviated from the standard "obituary script" very much. Indeed, space, time and manpower restrictions at newspapers may have more to do with lifeless obituaries than any conscious policy.
But that does not obscure the paternalistic attitude of newspapers toward survivors.
By running the kinds of obituaries they run, newspapers in effect tell survivors, "We want to show how wonderful and compassionate we can be to you at a time of great stress. We will see to it that your beloved dead relative comes out looking like a saint."
But the two-dimensional pictures newspapers paint always look silly years later.
Imagine a granddaughter, poring over a yellowing obituary, hoping to recognize in print that garrulous old fellow the family has always said was her grandpa.
What does she find? Some guy who, according to his obituary, was nothing but a 32nd degree Mason and a native of someplace in Missouri who was survived by a lot of sisters.
If newspapers would simply ask survivors whether "damaging" detail would really be seen that way by the grieving family, there wouldn't be a problem. But the papers up and decide themselves.
I used to do it myself when I wrote obituaries. If the subject of an obituary talked too much, let's say, or preferred scotch to gin, there was no way I would put it in the paper - even though it was often central to the dead person's life and character, and even though (as city editors are so fond of saying) you can't libel a dead man.
Perhaps most distressing is the way in which lifeless obituaries violate normal newspaper policy. Withholding or bending information to make someone look good is never done in any other kind of reporting. Why in obituaries?
Newspapers are only occasionally in the polling business, and most of the time the questions are about politics. But what if a group of survivors happened to be asked: "Do you think obituaries about members of your family should be honest in every way?"
I'll bet the yesses would flow like a river.
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Surefire Sign of the End of the World:
Paul V. Keane of Temple Hills reports that Channel 7 flashed the baseball standings the other day and committed the following atrocities:
Suspecting a simple error, this reporter rang up Channel 7 and explained the issue to a very polite voice on the sports desk - complete with at least 45 seconds of P-as-in-Pauls.
"I don't get it," said the voice finally. "You mean that isn't how you spell them?"
And you thought the weather was all you had to cry about?