‘I’d like to introduce you to my obituarist.’ That’s how I was regularly referred to by my amusing American friend. He loved to bandy this term about on every social occasion, accosting hardened doormen of the most exclusive nightclubs of Manhattan with the cry, ‘Let us through. I’m here with my obituarist.’
What a pleasing notion – that you might travel everywhere with your own personally appointed necrologist – but it was also true.
Having written obituaries for decades – for newspapers, magazines, websites, parish newsletters and school flyers – I was always on the lookout for suitable candidates. I did, in fact, collect ‘characters’ while they were still alive, with an eye to their eventual departure. I had already assembled many jotted notes, drunken revelations and aperçus concerning said friend.
The professional obituarist is regarded with the same suspicion as undertakers, pathologists, gravediggers and family lawyers. There is a frisson of perversion to the whole thing: the distant scent of Dr Death. This is especially true when one is writing obituaries of the living, at their own request – my latest and least respectable of undertakings.
‘Can’t I read my obituary now, while I’m still alive?’ This frequent plea eventually led to the idea of a bespoke service: Living Obit, or LO – pronounced ‘Ello’. Founded with a Swiss fiscal wizard and leading London digital designer, the company LO puts together some of the top obituary writers with potential clients: people celebrating a significant birthday, company buyout or third marriage, and looking for a more permanent memorial, in immortal prose, of their many achievements to date. Floating online in cyberspace – or proudly framed as the LO in the loo – a Living Obituary proves the ultimate unusual gift for people who’ve already got everything else.
This sizzling summary of your own existence, penned by your favourite writer at the Spectator, Financial Times or Toronto’s Globe and Mail, lies somewhere between a comic ‘roast’, a hand-hacked hagiography, a glowing Wikipedia entry and a seamlessly crafted best man’s speech. In no way ghoulish, the Living Obit is instead a celebration of life as it’s still being lived. Some of our punters are only in their early forties; their obituaries are perhaps an inspiration to do even better.
The great and the good have sometimes read their own premature obituaries. When Alfred Nobel saw he was described in an obituary solely as ‘the dynamite robber baron’, he created his eponymous prize for good works.
The old adage goes ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum’ – or ‘Don’t say anything about the dead except good stuff’. If one must speak only favourably of the dead, it can only be even more obligatory if you’re writing the obituary of someone in the full flush of middle age who has also just paid you for the privilege.
The difficulty with the Living Obit is that much of the fun and fizzle comes from being obliquely funny about the subject’s failings. The skill was best demonstrated by Hugh Massingberd, who reinvented the obituary when he became obits editor at the Daily Telegraph in 1986. Massingberd was master of the euphemism: ‘A man of simple tastes’ (a complete vulgarian); ‘a powerful negotiator’ (a bully); ‘relished the cadences of the English language’
(an incorrigible windbag); and ‘an uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man’ for a habitual flasher. Many euphemisms were devoted to drinking, from ‘no flincher from the glass’ (a raging alcoholic) to ‘his door was always open’ and ‘convivial’ as code for a terminal drunk.
My mentor was James Fergusson, a dealer in rare books who launched the Independent obituaries, also in 1986 – the annus mirabilis for the English obit. He is not always given sufficient credit for the form’s revival, restoring it to its 17th-century glory as exemplified by John Aubrey’s Brief Lives.
Over the past three decades, the contemporary obituary has become extremely popular. In 2016 there was even a documentary film, Obit, made about the obituary writers on the New York Times.
Obituaries have moved too far from the Massingberd euphemisms, towards irreverence, if not plain disrespect. The former Telegraph editor Charles Moore recently saw the Times’s internal guide to writing obituaries. It put a premium on malicious wit and vicious innuendo, ‘the quirkier the better’; anything to keep the reader entertained rather than retaining a modicum of respect for the dead.
Surely it’s better to pay in advance
for your final eulogy and guarantee a suitable amount of obsequious grovelling and fawning.
Death itself has a way of outwitting all our plans. My 99-year-old architect father has happily already outlived three of his appointed obituarists.
He even afforded me the odd experience of meeting a bumptious young acquaintance, long resident on the Telegraph’s graveyard shift, who
assured me, ‘I’ve been “updating” your dad – he seems to be getting more famous every year!’