An obituary should remind
us of the elusiveness
of the human condition
I have reached the age when I read newspaper obituaries with a degree of apprehension – not so much because I fear that I might have joined the list of people who have found themselves subject to premature obituaries, as because I may encounter a report of the death of a friend or former colleague.
Writing an obituary is a minor art form which requires, at the very least, accurate information and some assessment of the achievements of the deceased. If the writer is also able to offer some personal insights into the distinctive human qualities of the subject, so much the better. These insights are generally expected to be positive, on the grounds that it is considered bad taste to speak ill of the dead. At the same time, an unqualified eulogy of someone who may have had a chequered history, or whose success may have been achieved through actions that were less than admirable, would lack credibility. In recent years, there has been something of a trend towards more critical obituaries.
One example was the Guardian report in 2006 of the death of Lord (Marmaduke) Hussey, who had been chairman of the BBC. It opened by saying that he 'was a shining example of the widespread belief among the "great and good" of the British establishment that corporate management is a profession which can be practised without technical knowledge'. It went on to say that his 'massive physique was accompanied by a booming and not infrequently bullying bonhomie'. Due tribute was paid to his war record and the courage with which he bore the serious injuries he sustained. The main focus, however, was on his subsequent career, advanced through a combination of powerful connections and invincible self-belief. The obituary concluded by describing him as the 'quintessence of the British patrician amateur' and summing up his most distinctive qualities – 'secretive, sly and smug as well as patronising, charming and physically overwhelming'.
Less severe, but still decidedly barbed, was the Telegraph obituary of Lord St John of Fawsley (better known as the Conservative MP, Norman St John Stevas, for a time leader of the House of Commons under Margaret Thatcher), who died earlier this year. Referring to his later role as chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, the obituary observed 'he was also something of a work of art and national treasure himself', adding: 'Like Oscar Wilde, he put his genius into his life, affecting the flamboyant mannerisms of an Edwardian aesthete (proffering his hand in papal fashion, lapsing into Latin, deliberately mispronouncing modern words)'.
Vain, pompous and snobbish, as well as 'disarmingly immodest', St John Stevas was well known for gossip and indiscretion – he did not so much 'leak as gush'. An inveterate networker and social climber, he claimed to have direct access to the royal family. One colleague once accused him of being a compulsive name-dropper. St John Stevas replied: 'The queen said exactly the same to me yesterday'. Despite his often absurd pretensions, he did at least have a capacity for witty remarks, sometimes directed at himself.
There seems to be an unwritten rule among these groups that, whatever differences they may have had in their working lives, they will pay formal tribute to each other in death.
There was a short-lived television series in the 1990s called 'TV Offal' (not to be confused with Awful TV which is now the standard fare on the mainstream channels), which contained spoof 'honest obituaries' of living celebrities. The list of victims included Jeremy Clarkson, Noel Edmonds, Melvyn Bragg, Nigel Kennedy and Jeremy Beadle, who were all subject to unflattering portrayals (clips can still be viewed on YouTube). However, I don't suppose they were unduly upset as, in the shallow media world they inhabit, being ignored is a much worse fate than savage lampooning.
Obituaries provide a fertile ground for the use of euphemism, hinting at darker undercurrents beneath formulaic expressions. A 'larger than life character' could be the sort of person who brought cheer to any company but, equally, could have been a noisy, attention-seeking nuisance who had to be centre-stage at every event. To describe someone as having held 'robust views' may be code for saying that he was ignorant and prejudiced. Similarly, a person who 'didn't suffer fools gladly' might simply have been arrogant and dogmatic. The 'tireless raconteur' could have been a ponderous bore, while the 'pillar of the community' may have been an interfering busybody. The 'free spirit' who pursued a 'bohemian lifestyle' might never have got beyond the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of his youth.
The dullest obituaries are often those of distinguished professionals (lawyers, doctors, academics). There seems to be an unwritten rule among these groups that, whatever differences they may have had in their working lives, they will pay formal tribute to each other in death. It is a form of narrative privilege used for mutual protection: they agree to write each other's personal history in a way that reflects well on themselves and their profession. In some cases, this can lead to serious misrepresentation as decidedly flawed characters are portrayed as exemplars of high standards in their public and private lives.
It would be interesting to set alongside the 'official' obituary one from someone (perhaps a subordinate or client/patient/student) who might present a different perspective. It is not unknown for successful men and women to combine a public face of charm, courtesy and humour with a private manner that is calculating, manipulative and ruthless.
There is an important sense in which no individual can ever be fully known. All biographical sketches, including obituaries, are thus partial and provisional. When I read the obituary of someone I have known, as well as being reminded of his or her achievements, I want to gain a sense of the elusiveness and mystery of the human condition, of a life that is resistant to summing up.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling