Retired newsman Bob Barnes reflects on his 20 years of writing obits --- more than 15,000 of them --- in a good-humored memoir in today's Washington Post. Among the many gems in his essay:

It was longstanding Post policy to include the cause of death in our obituaries, and we kept a mental tab of the more unusual ways in which people died. We once published the obituary of a psychiatrist who drowned in a sensory deprivation tank. We had a man who perished in a midair hang-gliding collision and a retired ambassador who died in an in-line skating accident. It was a sad and tragic death, but we all thought it was a class act that the former diplomat was Rollerblading at the age of 79.

We wrote the obligatory obituaries of world leaders and celebrities. But mainly we wrote about ordinary people, the rank-and-file bureaucrats and businessmen, doctors, nurses, teachers, letter carriers, plumbers, taxi drivers, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, most of whom had never had their name in a newspaper. They were the people who kept the social machinery running. Without them, there would be no civilization. I liked to call them the real people. They deserved an obituary in The Washington Post. There were gems and treasures among them, and real heroes who survived hell-on-earth experiences, recovered and returned to society, wanting no more than the love of family and friends and the chance to make a quiet contribution.

Barnes notes that "success has many fathers" (as illustrated by countless obits of atomic scientists, computer technology inventors, etc.) while "failure is an orphan" (apparently no one has ever died who was involved in the Ford Edsel project, space program disasters, or any other horribly unsuccessful enterprise). Bereaved family members and friends have a tendency to omit inconvenient episodes in the recently deceased's past. Ex-spouses seem to have the sharpest memories.

But overall, as Bob Barnes observes about his career on the death beat, "You have to love humor and irony, pathos and mystery, tragedy and romance. You have to be reverent and irreverent. You have to laugh a little or you'll go crazy."

True also for life in general ...

(see "You Really Have to Love Life to Write about Death Every Day ..." in the Washington Post of 2 Jan 2005; see also McGs (28 Feb 2002), ...)

TopicLife - TopicLiterature - 2005-01-02

(correlates: CaptainKangaroo, JournalBearing, UncivilServants, ...)