A Matter Of Life And Death

A cartoon by Michael Heath in “The Spectator”.

28 August 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch, inspired by Göran R Buckhorn’s recent piece on obituaries, tries not to be a tireless raconteur.

Voltaire was quoted saying ‘To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe the truth’. However, my grandmother always held that ‘you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead’. Things are different nowadays but, historically at least, newspaper obituary writers have followed my Cornish granny’s dictum rather than that of the French Enlightenment philosopher.

In a more respectful, pre-social media age, obituary was the art of the euphemism, with all but the unquestionably evil get gentle treatment (thus avoiding statements such as ‘Joseph Stalin did not suffer fools gladly’). However, the age of deference has now passed and rapidly changing social attitudes mean that things such as homosexuality can be referred to directly (in post-Princess Diana Britain, if you ask someone how they are, they may, unfortunately, actually tell you). Further, in the age of the Internet, anyone can comment on obituaries. While criticism of the deceased is not unknown, usually most keyboard warriors rush to show the world their empathy by saying how sorry they are that someone that they have never met has died. Unless I have missed it though, I still await an announcement such as ‘He leaves a wife, two children and 723 Facebook Friends’.

Hugh Massingberd as depicted on the cover of his autobiography.

As Göran indicated in his article, Hugh Massingberd of the Daily Telegraph further changed obituary writing, making it into a big joke based on English understatement and, in the words of his successor, Harry de Quetteville, ‘championing the illuminating anecdote over the dusty details of the curriculum vitae’. Amazingly, Massingberd’s Daily Telegraph’s Fifth Book of Obituaries (1999), was shortlisted for the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing in 2000.

Massingberd’s splendid 1991 Daily Telegraph obit of the third Lord Moynihan may have been on the cusp of the ‘respectful’ and ‘truthful’ traditions. It began gently, the lead paragraph stating:

[He] provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle.

However, in the main text, things got more explicit:

His chief occupations were bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer, but ‘Tony’ Moynihan also claimed other areas of expertise – as ‘professional negotiator’, ‘international diplomatic courier’, ‘currency manipulator’ and ‘authority on rock and roll’.

The Third Baron Moynihan (right) with a friend. Six years after his death, the House of Lords declared that his half-brother, Colin, the Oxford and Olympic coxswain, was the rightful heir to the title.

Some mostly historical euphemisms used about those who have contracted an incurable case of death include:

Tireless raconteur – bore
Free spirit – unemployable
A character – mad
Confirmed bachelor – gay
Didn’t suffer fools gladly – hated everyone
Eccentric – social outcast
Old school – racist/misogynist/homophobe
Convivial – drunkard
Colourful – drunkard
Affable – drunkard
Bon viveur – drunkard

Fine examples of the obituary writer’s art can be seen in Chris Dodd’s pieces on Dan Topolski (pictured above), Andy Holmes, Beryl Crockford and Jim Railton.

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