Obituaries and what they tell us about the dead and about journalism today.
The first murder in the Bible comes in Genesis 4 with the rivalry between Cain and Abel. “And it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him,” we are told.
But the first obituary in the Bible comes in the next chapter, when the text notes that Adam died. Genesis 5 begins, “This is the record of Adam’s line,” and what follows is a brief review of his life, ending in “All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died.”
The Bible knew well the difference between a murder story and an obituary. Simply put, a murder story is about a death; an obituary is a story about a life. We see this most vividly much later in Genesis in the Bible’s obituary for Sarah. “And Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old; these were the years of Sarah’s life.”
I’ve been ruminating lately about obituaries because, curiously, they are one of the few bright spots today in American journalism. Newspapers, both in print and online, have sustained a terrible economic blow in recent years because of what some call “the perfect storm” of the Great Recession and the challenge of the Internet, which has lured away both readers and advertisers. Newspapers are in trouble, but obits, as they are known in the business, have persisted and even flourished.
A 2009 report, “The State of the American Obituary,” published by Medill, the journalism school at Northwestern University, found that obituaries remain popular among readers and advertisers both online and in print. “Improving obituary coverage is a proven strategy for building readership in print,” the report found. But it doesn’t end with print. “Obituaries constitute some of the most popular and widely searched-for content on newspaper Web sites,” the report adds.
In a national newspaper, like the New York Times or the Washington Post, the reader can expect to find obits of figures like Amy Winehouse, Geraldine Ferraro, Elizabeth Taylor or Peter Falk, all of whom died in recent months. In smaller, local newspapers, you’re more likely to find obits of schoolteachers, police officers and local businessmen and women, what are traditionally called the “common man” obit.
Another category is the “unsung hero” obit. Some of my favorites of this genre are the obit of Edward Lowe, whose invention of Kitty Litter, revolutionized the domestication of cats (Kitty Litter neutralizes the smell of cat urine), and Leslie Buck, the creator of the iconic cardboard coffee cup with the Grecian design.
Buck’s obit was written by one of the masters of the “unsung hero” obit, Margalit Fox of the New York Times. Fox gave a talk last year about obit writing to the students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach. She told our students that obituaries “have to be more than someone’s resumé” and, even, “more than a good story.”
“A good obit needs a social context,” she said. “It is a social history in microcosm. If the rest of the newspaper is about how we live now, the obit is about how we lived then.”
For example, when you read the obit of Joe DiMaggio, you learn about more than one life, but about the glory days of baseball and about Marilyn Monroe, who was briefly DiMaggio’s wife. When you read the obit of Betty Ford, you’ll learn about both the White House and addiction. And when you read the obit of Sydney Lumet, you’ll find out about making movies with everyone from Henry Fonda to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
One important distinction that Fox drew was between obituaries and eulogies. “Keep in mind,” she said, “an obit is not a eulogy. It is a news story like any other in the paper, but biographical in nature. It must be well reported, balanced and written in an engaging but disinterested, unsentimental way.”
This distinction between obituary and eulogy can also be found in the Bible. After the rather straightforward obituary of Sarah in Genesis 23, the Bible adds that Abraham came to “mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” We are not told what Abraham says in the eulogy for his wife. The great eulogizer of the Bible is King David. “How the mighty have fallen,” David says of Saul and Jonathan in Samuel II, Chapter 1. “I grieve for you my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me.”
And the most heart-wrenching of eulogies comes later in Samuel II — David’s lament for Absalom. “My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you.”
Newspapers have long understood the difference between obituary and eulogy. This gave newspapers a certain edge. In reading about a life, you got the sense of the person’s importance devoid of sentimentality. But the Internet is eroding that. The Medill study noted the growth of sites like Legacy.com and other online obituary aggregators that invite friends and relatives to post tributes to the dead. On the one hand this has led to the “democratization” of obits but on the other it has blurred the line between facts and tributes.
In my career as a journalist, I wrote over 100 obits, most of them for The New York Times. Most of them were written on deadline, usually the day the person died, but some were written in advance. In so doing, I was contributing to an archive of hundreds of “advance obituaries” that the Times keeps on file of celebrities so that the paper is ready to tell their story when the inevitable comes. While over my career I wrote more than 1,000 articles of all kinds, the obits are some of my favorites and, to be sure, some of the most lasting.
For example, my first Page One story in the New York Times, on Sept. 2, 1975, had this headline: “Fares Rise to 50 Cents Without Incident.” It was, as I remember, a big deal that day, but in perspective it has little meaning, just a step along the way to today’s fare of $2.25. But my obituaries endure.
In 1994, I wrote the obituary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which was something of a challenge since I am a big Carlebach fan. He influenced me both musically and spiritually. I had to hold back, sticking to the facts, although I was able to claim — without challenge — that he was the “the foremost songwriter in contemporary Judaism.” I also had to note that Carlebach’s methods made “some rabbis uncomfortable” without detailing his failing. A few years ago, Menachem Daum, who is working on a film about Carlebach, asked me to read the obit to use as a voiceover for parts of the movie. My favorite line in that obit came from Carlebach himself who was asked why he named his Bay Area synagogue “The House of Love and Prayer.”
“If I would have called it Temple Israel, nobody would have come,” he said.
A few months earlier I had written the obituary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, under the headline, “Rabbi Schneerson Led a Small Hasidic Sect to Prominence.” I gave a rather straightforward account of the rebbe’s life and the controversies that surrounded it. But some Lubavitchers found fault with my basic premise, i.e., that the rebbe actually died. The Messianists within the movement claim that he is not dead, just in hiding and waiting to reveal himself as the Messiah.
All of which comes to prove, I suppose, that there are some people who do not believe everything they read in the newspapers. Even the obits.
Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the media columnist for the Jewish Week.