Death Becomes Them: Fame and the Obituary

According to veteran US newsman Walter Cronkite, obituaries should echo the fame of their subject. In his piece 'The Art of the Obituary' for NPR, he looks at an “aura… at least as fascinating as the person or the work, but it only materializes after the obituaries have been filed”.

US journalist, Walter Cronkite

US journalist, Walter Cronkite

Cronkite (who died himself in 2009) wrote obituaries for Dwight Eisenhower, Helen Keller and John Wayne, but remembers most clearly the “nine-day watch that hung on the passing of Sir Winston Churchill”. He recalls it as “one of those watershed moments in which the obituary rises to a special calling beyond the sharing of remembered times”.

And there’s a secret to obituary writing, particularly when writing about heads of state. According to Cronkite, “They not only get the longest obits, but their importance requires a special timeliness, so their obituaries are written during their lifetime, so they can be available at an instant’s notice.” Many such obits are written in advance and can “spend years gathering dust… [so] sometimes a famous subject may even outlive his own obituary writer.”

Famous deaths vary from generation to generation. Cronkite observes that “The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 was felt more deeply by his generation than by mine” and that the death of Elvis Presley quickly “became a story of crowd control” that turned into “a financial bonanza for anyone with a Presley poster or T-shirt to sell”. By contrast he notes that the death of Bing Crosby was met with no T-shirt sales partly because Crosby didn’t die young and there was less of a sense that the singer/actor was “cut off before their time”.

But the last word should go to film star Kim Novak, who says fame and life have much in common: “It’s all such a sort of temporary kind of thing. It… really doesn’t seem to have much substance. You just are uncertain, it’s a very uncertain position… I remember once the head of publicity said to me, just remember, never forget that all you are is a piece of meat.”

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