Peter Bart: New Thinking On Obituaries Proves That Even Death Isn’t Exempt From Rebirth

The passing of a fabled star like Kirk Douglas always prompts obits that are respectful, if not adulatory, replete with a signature photo – Spartacus in Douglas’ case. But now a major re-think is overtaking the obit business. Yes, even death is getting a makeover, as evidenced in several arenas.

A new documentary, Overlooked, analyzing the evolution of obits will shortly emerge from Netflix and the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground. Paramount Television is partnering with the New York Times on a doc about the rituals of obit writing. Revisionist attitudes are also explored in Mobituaries, a witty if snarky new book by Mo Rocca, the CBS commentator.

The “new journalism” of obit writing may be good news for the deceased, but the revisionist trend may also stir political angst. “Men have to accept the fact that, in the new world of diversity, they may become second-class corpses,” confides one veteran New York Times obit writer who does not want to be identified. “Women get top billing. Especially women of color. Even women who died decades ago.”

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Decisions on the placement of obits at the Times now resides with a gender editor as well as the obit editor. Thus, the Times’ venture with Paramount will focus on “notable women” often ignored by history. This attitude contrasts with that of the Wall Street Journal, which has started an obit section highlighting mega-successful business tycoons — men whose death notices are often tossed by the major media.

Last weekend, for example, the Journal’s obit section put the spotlight on Clayton Williams, a Texas oil man nicknamed “Claytie,” according to the obit, while the Times section (along with Deadline) detailed the life of Esther Scott, an African American character actress (she played a grandmother in Boyz N the Hood).

Decisions about death have always been provocative. Joe Allen, the historic after-theater haunt in New York’s theater district, long ago turned its walls into an historic “obit” of dead plays. Some producers, like David Merrick, complained to management because a couple of his instant disasters failed to make the wall — they didn’t die fast enough to qualify, Joe Allen explained.

Habitual obit readers argue that some of the best writing in journalism is embraced in these pages. Rocca, for example, a life-long obit fan, points to the 2,600-word obit in 2003 on Mme Chaiang Kai-Shek in the Times as a paragon of the obit art (also known a Soong Mei-lin, she was first lady of China).

As an obsessive obit reader, Rocca regrets the accidents of history that have diminished the legacies of important figures – that Audrey Hepburn died on the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration, for example. The upshot: Short obit. Similarly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson regrettably collided at death’s door.

In Rocca’s view, some historic figures have been victims of obit snubs for other reasons: Witness Giacomo Meyerbeer, who essentially invented the opera (he died anonymously in 1864). Or Lois Weber, the first “bankable” female director (passed in 1939).

Rocca also argues that certain countries, now extinct, should have been accorded national obits, such as Prussia and Assyria. Or even Sodom and Gomorrah.

He also asks, why weren’t Neanderthals awarded a formal obit? While Overlooked will deal with history’s neglected heroes, it is doubtful whether our primitive forebears will qualify for the Obamas’ self-defined Higher Ground.

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