Obituary Writing

The NY Times has a Q&A with Bruce Weber, one of their obituary writers, on what obituary writing is all about. Most of the Q's are fairly straightforward and the A's are short and interesting. For example, how do living people react to being asked to contribute an interview to their own advanced obituary? (A: not always all that well!), and what is meant by the frequent euphemism "after a long illness"? (A: a combination of ailments too complex or vague to put to print).

The longest answer was for this question:

Q. I have been reading The Times daily since I was about 10 years old. I love the autobiographical obituaries. It is interesting to me that 14 out of 15 are about men who have died, and the 15th is about a woman of note. It is amazing that so few women who die are interesting enough to write about. Tell me about this.
— Bernita Hassall Fadden, Palm Coast, Fla.

A. It's hard to deny that a disproportionate percentage of our obituaries are about men, though I think 14 out of 15 is an exaggeration. (I counted my own recent obituaries, and 8 of the last 50 have been women, including Helen Galland, Mila Schön and Barbara Warren.) I certainly hope this isn't about gender bias, and I don't think it is. For one thing, our departmental discussions about who is and who isn't deserving never touch on a subject's gender, unless it's to note that for a woman (or a man) to have accomplished such-and-such was unusual, as was the case with Mary Garber, whose obituary was written by Richard Goldstein. For another thing, the editor who does most of the daily assigning, Claiborne Ray, is a woman. Prompted by your letter I asked her about the disparity, and she confirmed my instinctive response, which is that the majority of people who are dying these days — that is, older people — grew up at a time when achievement and fame were far more accessible to men than to women. Writing obituaries often makes you feel as though you're reporting on a world that doesn't exist any more, and I can only assume that as time goes on, the number of women who appear on the obituaries pages will grow significantly.

Does the obituary writer protest too much? I don't know: I can see some reason behind his ultimate answer, that the people dying today came from an age when notable courses of life were more likely for men... but only if you define "notable" in a traditionally male way: movers and shakers who stayed movers in shakers all their lives, no matter if they had kids at home. There are many women who did extraordinary things in nursing and teaching, women who did extraordinary things during WWII on the "homefront" working in factories or participating in the ways available to them. But those women were very often absorbed into "home-life" at some point. Does that make what they did early in their lives disappear? "The editor who does most of the daily assigning, Claiborne Ray, is a woman" is such a bad, bad argument, you wonder what has him grasping so. Is it that they know they don't put in the work that would be required to find the exceptional women who, in their third decade, "became wives and mothers" (and stopped being "people"?) ... This makes we think me need a Women's Project, similar to the project to find Holocaust survivors and interview them about their early lives. We need to find older women, women who have been seen as fertility objects for most of their lives, who did amazing things and went amazing places in the 20s, 30s, 40s... and then "disappeared" into motherhood in the 40s, 50s, 60s.

If someone shakes the world at 25 and dies, she is honored in print. If someone shakes the world at 25 and marries at 30, she disappears. The hero's path is different from the heroine's path, but I'm not so sure we ought to regard it less. And the unusual length of this particular reply makes me think that Weber knows it.

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