Bringing Obituaries to Life

By De Quetteville, Harry | The Spectator, November 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Bringing Obituaries to Life


De Quetteville, Harry, The Spectator


How a dusty corner of the newspaper became a glamour posting.

I used to be a foreign correspondent.

Some t imes I though t i t was a pre t ty glamorous job. At dinner parties I might occasionally drop hints about the dangerous sorts of places I had been to. But the only people who cared were other foreign correspondents, and then only because they were eager to dwarf my boasts with their own tales of derring-do. To my youthful indignation, nobody else gave a hoot.

Now I am the obituaries editor at the Telegraph . Quite a career shift, I'm prepared to admit. These days if people ask what I do I tend to mumble something about being a journalist. But this, I'm afraid to say, is not because I am now wiser and less vain. Rather, it is because I have discovered that the job of obituaries editor, unlike that of foreign correspondent, is something that people are actually fascinated by. These days, if someone learns precisely what I do, the chances are that they will be ravenous for every detail. And while we all like to bore on about ourselves, there are limits.

It took me a while to understand this. I'd once assumed that foreign corresponding was the cool beat, and that obituaries was, well, the dead beat. It turned out the reverse was true. To my astonishment the words 'I just love obituaries' would come tumbling out not just from the mouths of aged great aunts, but also from the pouting lips of shapely twentysomethings at parties. Obituaries, it seemed, are sexy. How did this happen?

Put it down to Hugh Massingberd. He was the great man who launched obits in the Telegraph in the late 1980s. Of course, obits had appeared in the paper before then, but only occasionally, and then they were pretty stuffy. Hugh was the man to carve out a regular column, which has grown over the years to the entire page it inhabits these days. The secrets of his success were his catholic tastes and roving eye - his instinctive understanding that readers are interested in so much more than the arid achievements of peers and prime ministers as laid out in Who's Who . What people were after, Hugh realised, was a splash of colour, a tasty titbit of gossip or three, and an amiable indication of the true nature of the dead chap's character.

Thus when readers discovered that the stiff in question 'did not suffer fools gladly', they knew they were dealing with a total shit.

It was a magic formula. The funereal pieces or yore were replaced by such introductions as:

'Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 74, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things - a whore and a spy - "and there were attempts to make me both. . ." ' Who could resist? Certainly not Hugh's successors as editors of the obituary page, all of whom have subscribed to his enlightened criteria for what make a life worth recording.

The only problem, as far as I am concerned, is that this spirit of inclusiveness means it is hard to whittle down the list of contenders.

After all, with dope peddlers, jewel thieves, orgiasts, con men, witches, goat-breeders, cult-leaders and strip-club proprietors every bit as ripe for consideration for the page as archbishops and Fellows of the Royal Society, the list of candidates is endless. The obits editor's cup runneth over every day. …

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