by the Events Organiser and Obituray Reviewer, Melissa McCarthy
Greetings to the Committee members and the Floor.
My role is Events Organiser and Obituary Reviewer, and here I'd like to introduce the field of obituaries and explain some initial routes of investigation that I've gone down.
I'm not, here, going to consider other ways of acknowledging a death and remembering a life, such as murals, musical works or those crusader tomb figures with crossed feet and a lapdog. These and many more are artworks prompted by death - and which isn't - but I'm going to go straight to the newspaper obituary, looking first at its forms and conventions, and then considering some points that have emerged from particular examples I've gathered over the last eight months or so.
Slide 1:Obituary page
As you can see from this typical sample, the page has death notices, which aren't obituaries because they are too practical, and in memoriams, which are an expression of sadness rather than a proper obituary. Here there's a photo, which both attracts readers to the page, and provides the fact that you're reading the page on death and seeing a human face stare back out at you. There are also birthdays, which are partly a congratulatory measure to let people know that they are eminent, but partly they introduce the elements of counting and career: you can see they give the job of the person and the number of years they've reached. I suggest that these are two central strands in the obituaries themselves as well. Counting, the attaching of numbers to names, is vital, as in the fact that obits strive to provide the precise date of birth and death. The second central strand of an obituary is the job that the person did. This means of classification is useful for a number of reasons, including that it makes investigation more manageable, allowing grouping into charts such as this one I've made:
Slide 2: 'Who's dying now?'
You can see we have some actors; only one ice hockey play, but he was the finest the game has ever seen, which is something to look out for in obits; and other categories. Nixon associates were always going to be in for a bad time, and musicians are in a very broad category, so it's really arts administrators who are the surprising climbers in this chart.
As indicated by the curves of the chart, obituaries follow trends. Here it's that when one member of a profession dies, others rush to follow suit, and another trend to look out for is in means of death, such as light aeroplane crashes or in the case of the permanently dying Kennedys and of Sonny Bono, skiing into a tree while on holiday, which was all the rage for a short while.Another thing to look out for is the benefits of juxtaposition and coincidence on the obituary pages. Dr Seuss, author of 'One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish', shared a page in the Independent with Rudolph Hess, while in a different sense there's the uncanny match of both Jeffry Bernard and Norman Tebbit (although he is not yet dead) writing corrections to their own obituaries, so that after their deaths there would be a letter published saying, 'Dear sir, While greatly enjoying your obituary of myself, I feel obliged to point out a few errors...'
This leads into examination of the timing of obits. They are generally prepared before death, but newspaper obit editors are very protective of the ones that they have waiting, and this makes sense to me because while they might become obits very soon, before death, they're gossip. I suggest that timing plays an important role in the strange power of the obituary, that it's a piece of writing that isn't altered, but which becomes activated, turns into functioning writing. An obituary is like a deeply-buried secret agent, or mole, a dormant device waiting to be activated.
So those are a few points on the form of obituaries.
As for content, following the First Manifesto of Necronautism, I decided to look through the careers of the subjects to see if I could find anyone whose work during their lifetime might have offered some guidance in 'the construction of a craft'. I looked out for people who work with the tools of death: nuclear physicists, global capitalist, drugs synthesisers, fighter pilots, surgeons, those who design necropolises, Nazis, heroin addicts, Vietnam strategist, for example. (William Burroughs is so completely au fait with all these categories that he needs special consideration elsewhere as an explorer of death.)
And I did find some architects, bombers and transport strategists, whose life's works have the potential to guide our investigations. But the main benefit seemed to me to come from gleaning the little details that stand out from the collected material, and prompt thought into new and unexpected directions. These can be small comments, such as the brewer at Holt of whom it's said, 'The success of his life's dedication can be measured from the fact that beer tastes much the same as it always has done,' or the larger pattern of a person's life. A particular favourite of mine is the Marquis of Bristol, died Jan 1999. His obituaries are interesting partly because he raises the question of whether it's possible in one lifetime to spend #7 million on cocaine, and partly because he was clearly desperately unhappy and had special access to death. (I don't know if the head of the Techno-chemical division can offer any insight into this.)
I suggest, then, that for us the use of obituaries is never going to be for straightforward instruction - for that we'd need to play Iron Maiden records backwards or something - it's more that the surprises, odd comments and corridors of view that they provide will be parts of a route map, offering indirect help and oblique signposts.
To that end, I'd like to close by returning to this obituary of Thomas Durden. Slide 1 again.
It gives the career and the counting, of course, and it's an example of the felicitous juxtapositions that the genre throws up, in that this one's mother was by chance the writing partner of this one, and both the subjects on the page were in the same line of work. And it tells that Durden happened to read in his local news that a man had been found in a hotel room with all his ID destroyed and only a suicide note left beside him saying, 'I walk a lonely street.' This prompted Durden to write 'Heartbreak Hotel,' Elvis Presley's first gold record, followed by Elvis' own history of extreme fame and inspired death. I like this tale because it shows oscillations between fame, anonymity and quiet renown, and because it illustrates nicely the interplay between art and death, with many layers of writing (in this newspaper) referring to death referring to art, to death, to art, to writing. It's like being between reflecting mirrors, and I think starting points like this will prove more than useful to the investigations of the INS.
My next report will be on surfers, who I suspect are onto something, and on those who have matching names, such as Alan Clarke, MP or film director, and Keith Haring, artist, vs Keith Joseph, politician, just to see if this yields anything worth knowing.