Obituaries Grow Steadily Livelier

By MacLaren, Roy | The Spectator, February 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

Obituaries Grow Steadily Livelier


MacLaren, Roy, The Spectator


CANADA FROM AFAR: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH BOOK OF CANADIAN OBITUARIES edited by David Twiston Davies Dundurn Press, available from Telegraph Books Direct, tel. 01908 566 366, 9.95, pp. 270

Newspapers once published news; now television supplies instant awareness of what's happening. As a result, newspapers have become more like daily magazines, replete with extended articles about people, their dalliances, foibles, misadventures and occasionally even achievements. The scrutiny of private lives has become increasingly close, feeding a ready and substantial market for gossip about those seen fleetingly on television broadcasts or those whose antics would have, in another day, been monitored only on page three.

Now page three has become the newspaper itself, pushing the serious analysis of anything into learned journals or books. With today's television-induced commitment by daily newspapers to provide readers with a higher - in practice frequently not so high - level of gossip, obituaries have, as it were, gained a new life. At bookshops, biographies are today in demand to an unprecedented degree; in newspapers, brief lives are in equal demand.

To supply this perceived market for something other than the hagiographies that once passed for obituaries, creative talent began to be deployed in obituary writing to a degree hitherto unknown. Even the magisterial obituaries of the Times began to change, moving slowly away from the wholly respectful, beginning-middleand-end account of the lives of the great which it evidently regarded as the duty of a self-appointed national journal of record. A little iconoclasm, the occasional noting of clay feet, the apt anecdote, began to creep into obituaries on this side of the Atlantic (but not on the other: although the Globe and Mail in Canada has begun to test the waters, the obituaries of the New York Times remain pure hagiography; seldom is heard a discouraging word).

When the Daily Telegraph began to push out the boundaries of its obituaries (beginning about 1987) it did so with increasing enthusiasm, perceptively embracing the basic proposition that if the reader sought page-three stuff throughout his or her television-age newspapers, then he or she must also want it in the obituaries. A whole new world began to open before the obituary department, hitherto the graveyard so to speak - of journalists.

The happy results of this unanticipated impact of television on newspapers are well reflected in this book. If one reads the almost 100 obituaries in chronological order (all still anonymous in their authorship), both refreshing candour and even occasional humour become increasingly evident during the decade represented. …

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