Forget Me Not (but remember me warts and all)

Far too often, obituaries are drab and sanitised affairs, so Matthew Reisz asks scholars how they might word their own death notices

August 20, 2009

Who will keep our memory alive when we die? Who will lobby the editors of the obituary pages and make sure we are presented in the best possible light, our achievements flatteringly showcased and our failings tactfully ignored?

One option is to rely on friends and colleagues, but can they be trusted to do their best by us? Jonathan Swift wrote a splendid poem on the subject, Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, DSPD (1731). He imagines some of his friends hearing the news while they are playing cards, their conventional mourners' platitudes mingled with phrases such as "I lead a heart" and "What is trumps?" If it is up to people like that to secure our place in posterity, we are bound to be forgotten.

Anyone looking at the obituaries in the national press can easily find examples of half-hearted or formulaic praise from former colleagues. The description of one recently deceased academic told us that "he was always interested in the resistance to flow in pipes and open channels, which is important for water supply, sewerage and drainage, as well as for hydro power". Is that really how anyone would want to be remembered by their grandchildren?

If it isn't possible to rely on friends and colleagues, what about university press officers? In preparing obituaries, Times Higher Education writers find, far more often than not, that they give us copy that is crisp, lively and informative to work with. But not always.

One scholar was acclaimed for his "remarkable record of service on the broadest possible spread of committees, sub-committees and working groups; as one colleague observed at the time, the list of these read like an index for the constitutional history of the university". His spell on Earth was summarised as a "lifetime of enlightened devotion to the university's best interests". Wouldn't it be rather sad to have those words as testimony to one's existence?

The conclusion is obvious. As with so much in life, if you want a job done properly, you have to do it yourself. Convinced that he couldn't count on his friends, Swift grabbed the opportunity to offer his own account of his virtues and achievements.

Something similar occurred to Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham - although he wasn't inspired by Swift so much as by John Le Mesurier, an actor best known for his role in the BBC comedy Dad's Army, whose self-authored death notice appeared in The Times in 1983. This sounded like an excellent idea to Alderman.

"What annoys me is when obituaries are not frank, when they are sanitised - that offends my sensibility as a historian," he explains. "I could show you many heavily sanitised obituaries. I want my obit to be just as I write the obituaries of other people - namely, warts and all."

This has occasionally landed him in trouble. When writing an obituary for The Jewish Chronicle, he offended some readers by making it pretty clear that he thought the deceased was a crook. Yet Alderman saw it as his job "to tell the story as it was, not as some community bigwig would want it to be. For those who are never going to get a biography, the obituary is the final word and so needs to be as accurate as possible."

He adds: "It's very therapeutic to write your own obituary - you can say what you like and it can't be defamatory. Mine is not an act of vengeance, but some people will be extremely upset. There are episodes in my life I think important that others may not understand. I have the satisfaction of knowing the record will be out there."

Alderman long ago booked his spot in a Jewish cemetery (although it will now overlook the 2012 Olympic Village rather than Dagenham Marshes). Once he's buried there, only his reputation will remain.

"Just like my late mother, who was a nurse during the war, I'd like to think I have, on balance, added to the sum of human happiness," he says. "By writing my own obituary, I'm fighting for my posthumous reputation." Different versions of the text are lodged with The Times and The Jewish Chronicle.

In light of Alderman's decision, it seems appropriate to ask other academics what they think about obituaries - and what they would like to see in their own.

Some find the idea uncomfortable. For Andrew Palmer, senior lecturer in English and language studies at Canterbury Christ Church University, "the thought of sitting down to compose my own, or even to think what I might want to see in it, is a pretty unpleasant prospect. I'm afraid I can see myself spiralling down into a slough of despond."

David Lehmann, reader in social sciences at the University of Cambridge, would like to see obituaries with more human detail. "I find that they are frustrating," he says, "because - with the exception of film stars and pop musicians - they say nothing about people's private lives.

"In the case of academics, after a long list of lectures and institutions and committees and publications, a brief note says: 'She was married twice and had three children by the brother-in-law of one of her husbands.' You think: 'Wow! She was really quite interesting.' So let's have more about the real person and their private life."

Others seem to relish the opportunity to offer proud, comic or wistful reflections on their lives and achievements.

A short-but-sweet summary appeals to Devorah Baum, lecturer in English at the University of Southampton: "As a critical theorist, she never tired of arguing that there is no such thing as the 'real world'. Since she never left the academy, however, she never found out if she was right."

John Gilbey lectures in IT service management at Aberystwyth University. "For many years," his obituary will reveal to the world, "John held a variety of unsung posts in the research and higher education arena, not distinguishing himself in any field until late in life. In his seminal autobiography, Just Listen, Will You?, he described the Damascene flash of insight he experienced when a magazine editor asked him to write his own obituary.

"'In that one moment,' he wrote, 'I realised how little of what I had spent my time doing cosmically mattered. I determined thenceforth to ensure that I had a bloody good time with my remaining life.'

"Although he is now hailed as a lifestyle guru by several generations, John will probably be remembered chiefly for the bizarre and, it must be admitted, intensely amusing manner of his death. A number of Hollywood studios are thought to be bidding for the film rights."

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, sees herself as someone at odds with her times. Although her imaginary obituary points to her "fondness for blogging" - a collection of some of her favourite columns will be published in November as It's a Don's Life - Beard's self-penned notice will nevertheless reveal that she "was curiously out of step with the world of the 21st-century academy. She did not keep an up-to-date CV; she never knowingly gave a 'keynote address'; she never once filled in a time-allocation survey; and she was happy to have ideas that she didn't publish ('You don't have to commit every clever thought to print' was one of her slogans). She would even occasionally invite students back to her own home, where it is said that alcohol was consumed.

"To her friends and admirers, these were charming eccentricities - 'the last of the old-fashioned dons', some called her. To her detractors (who, it must be admitted, by the end of her career included some of her closest colleagues), these foibles were a tiresome irritant. Beard seemed resolutely at odds with the modernisation of the universities."

The University of Chichester's vice-chancellor, Robin Baker, imagines himself looking back from beyond the grave and reflecting that "not many of his noblest ambitions had been fulfilled. He never managed to secure a job as a university lecturer - wrong time, wrong subject (Finno-Ugrian languages); nor to become a fellow of the British Academy - wrong career track (British Council, university management), wrong brain.

"On his deathbed, he recognised that, although it was still too early to call, a cherished long-term goal of canonisation was looking far from secure. Lifelong unease with Catholicism and procrastination over becoming Orthodox meant he might not, as he put it, 'have what they are looking for'.

"But there were consolations. Owning a house on Mount Olympus that gave a foretaste of heaven and finding death before the collapse of the pension fund were among them."

A more professional perspective comes from Tim Bullamore, who describes himself as a rare combination of "obituary writer, academic and sub-editor" (in that order). He sub-edits articles and pens obituaries, many of them about classical musicians, for the national press. He teaches the history and theory of mass communication at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and is also a visiting fellow at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, researching the recent history of obituaries.

As a practitioner, Bullamore says, he "tries to corroborate what press officers say and look behind it. I don't believe in perfect life trajectories, so I refuse to smooth things out. Everybody makes mistakes. I want to portray the reality of life."

Because neither the dead nor (except in Tasmania) their estates can sue for libel, it is not unusual for embarrassing details of illicit drug use or consorting with rent boys to turn up in obituaries once the threat of legal action that kept them hidden throughout the deceased's life is removed. Yet Bullamore believes "you've got to keep scandals in proportion - while remembering the need to entertain readers as well as provide a record".

With ever-increasing pressure on space, there are interesting questions about who appears - and who doesn't - in the obituary pages. Bullamore wonders: "Are too many white, middle-class males featured in the Establishment press because that is what editors perceive that their readers want? Do obituaries reinforce the prominence of certain types of people? Does collective memory also mean collective forgetting?"

Along with other groups of people who are prominent but tend not to be household names, academics perhaps run the risk of being squeezed out. As for himself, Bullamore reflects: "I guess what I'd like to leave behind is a blazing row among the editors about whether or not their papers should even give me an obituary."

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