I worked all day on Easter writing the obituary of an 86-year-old professor of electrical engineering who taught at Rice University for fifty-six years. Writing an obituary is a duty and a privilege. Your words may be the only way some people ever learn of the deceased and his contributions. In the old days, readers would clip and save obituaries, sometimes in the family Bible. Now they’ll save the link or perhaps print out your story – an obituary is a story – and file it away. I once saw an obituary I had written posted on a refrigerator with a magnet. The first thing I ever wrote as a newspaper reporter was an obituary. The subject of the one I wrote on Sunday I had known for fifteen years. He was a friend, though not an intimate one.
One of A.J. Liebling’s best-known essays, published in The New Yorker on March 28, 1953, begins like this: “Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments.” Liebling goes on to describe how news of Stalin’s illness and death leaked only incrementally out of the Soviet Union, and how newspaper editors and obituary writers sweated the death watch.
In an earlier piece dated “Obits: 1945,” Liebling contrasts the ways newspapers treated the deaths of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. (DoD: 12-21-45) and Theodore Dreiser (DoD: 12-28-45). He covered the war in North Africa and was no admirer of Patton, whom he concludes was valorized by the newspapers. Liebling's idea of a general was Omar Bradley. He concludes that Dreiser was treated shabbily – and, more importantly, inaccurately -- by the obituary writers.
Liebling pauses for a moment and draws a happier conclusion: “When you write a man’s obituary, you become his advocate.”