The Last Word on the Late and Lamented


December 03, 1992|By TRB

Washington. -- In the past few months I've started reading the obituaries. Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a sign of age, intimations of mortality, and so on. But the obits are actually somewhat reassuring on this score. One's forties seem to be a relatively safe haven. AIDS and suicide are mainly visible in the rear-view mirror, while cancer and heart attacks are mostly distant specks on the horizon.

No, what appeals to me about the obituaries is the poetry, HTC specifically the poetry of the headlines. To some extent, this requires no art; the Ozymandias note is built in. ''Jerrold Wexler, 68, Chicago Developer Who Built Empire.'' Ah, but what good did it do him, in the end? ''David Gorenstein, Who Charted Math's Densest Fields, Dies at 69.'' Math's densest fields! Would he not have settled for math's second-densest fields, in exchange for a couple extra years?

But the art of writing obituary headlines is not to be sneered at. Indeed, a great obituary headline is the highest expression of the headline writer's art. As with other forms of poetry, the key is compression. This is hard enough when the topic is, say, a presidential pronouncement. The obituarist, though, must capture an entire life -- and is lucky to have five words to do it in. ''Nathan Appleman, 88, Oilman and Benefactor.'' This hardly does full justice, I'm sure, but it sounds grand and scans well.

Not everyone is so lucky. The demands of compression can impart a sense of comic triviality to almost any lifetime endeavor, however worthwhile. ''Dr. John Hotson, 95, Unraveler of Elizabethan Literary Puzzles.'' ''George E. Bates, 89, Investment Professor and Expert on Coins.'' ''Lillian V. Oppenheimer, 93; Introduced Americans to Origami.'' ''Dr. David Caplovitz, an Authority on Spending Habits.'' Glenn Appleyard, 70, Expert on 'Dial It' Lines.'' Would it be better, you may ask as you read each day's offerings, to be forgotten completely or to be remembered for all time as ''Jackson Weaver, 72, Voice of Smokey Bear''?

The obituary page celebrates life's diversity. Prof. F.S.C. Northrup, 98, who ''Saw Conflict Resolution in Science'' probably never met Rudolph C. Ising, 80, ''a Cartoonist and Creator of 'Looney Tunes,' '' and neither one would have much to say to John Bratby, '' 'Kitchen Sink' Artist and a Novel ist, 64.'' But all three are united forever by having died on the same day. Likewise ''Prof. Arpad E. Elo, 89, Inventor of Chess Ratings System'' and ''William Hillcourt, A Boy Scout Writer And Columnist.''

The biggest challenge for the deceased is to get your death noticed at all. The New York Times, where these examples come from, is highly and somewhat mysteriously selective. ''Bernard Baruch Jr., Stock Exchange Member, 90'' obviously made the cut only for being born to someone whose own Times obituary was longer and better placed.

Almost as poignant are those deemed significant for some long-ago event in their own lives. ''Calvin Graham, 62, Who Fought in War as a 12-Year-Old'' -- and presumably did nothing of note for the next half-century. ''John C. Daniel, 93; Admiral Had a Role In '53 Korea Truce.'' Saddest of all is when your demise merely revives some ancient embarrassment and stamps it forever as the defining moment of your life: ''G. Harrold Carswell Is Dead at 72; Was Rejected for Supreme Court.''

Some obituary headlines hint at the strain of having to summarize the deceased's accomplishments in a field the writer knows little or nothing about. The result is a slight sense of desperation or bluff. ''William Masselos is Dead at 72; A Pianist Who Loved Diversity.'' Or, ''Hallowell Davis, 96, an Explorer Who Charted the Inner Ear.'' Or, ''Ed Blackwell, 63, Jazz Drummer Known for Warm Textures.''

Sometimes the headline writer just gives up. ''Leonard A. Rapping, Author, 57; Developed an Economic Theory.'' ''Kimball C. Atwood 3d Dies at 71; Developed Way to Analyze Genes.'' ''Mark Hawkins, 82, Humorist-Essayist Of the Human Race.'' It's not clear whether ''of the human race'' is supposed to describe the deceased or his essays. But in either case the question arises: as opposed to what?

On the other hand, how about this grabber? ''John Buettner-Janush, 67, Dies; N.Y.U. Professor Poisoned Candy.'' After so many professors who made the Times for seemingly obscure academic accomplishments, it is refreshing to come across a deceased scholar whose noteworthy accomplishment involved taking action: in this case attempting to poison the judge in his trial for manufacturing drugs in his lab.

Other obit headlines signal an interesting life story more subtly. E.g., ''Rev. Timothy Sheehan, Ex-U.S. Drug Agent, 53.'' Turns out he quit the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973 to enter the Roman Catholic seminary. Died of lung cancer, by the way.

Best of all are the headlines in which death -- though inevitable for all of us -- is nevertheless made to seem ironic in this particular case. ''Jim Garrison, 70, Theorist on Kennedy Death, Dies.'' Or, ''Richard Yates, Novelist, 66, Dies; Chronicler of Disappointed Lives.'' Or, ''Gian Carlo Wick Is Dead at 82; Detected Symmetries of Universe.'' Did he indeed? Well perhaps he's now in a position to confirm them. And what about ''Richard Eells, 75; Professor of Business'' who -- as the Times summarizes his life's work in two words -- ''Urged Philanthropy''? Let's hope that's paying off for him.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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