Writing Obituaries

Obituary is an account of life and character of the deceased that is printed in newspaper or broadcasted soon after the person dies.

I like to read obituaries as they give you life sketches in some of the great personalities with insights, quotes and anecdotes.

The Economist publishes one full-page obituary per week, reflecting on the persons  life and influence on world history. Pan Books publishes a series called The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, which are anthologies of obituaries under a theme, such as military obituaries, sports obituaries, heroes and adventurers, entertainers, rogues, eccentric lives, etc. Its a treasure to read.

Take for example the obituary of J R D Tata (JRD) written by Kuldip Singh  in December, 1993 that appeared in the Independent. Singh wrote.

“JRD lived in an unpretentious, rented bungalow, The Cairn, in Bombay’s posh Cumbala Hill area. Local children were never barred from the compound, and whilst playing they would often run into a spare, elderly man, dressed in starched white trousers and shirt, with a benign air about him. Few realised he was one of India’s best- known businessmen.

JRD was stylish, modest and self- effacing, never imposing his seniority on any employee. When awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, he is known to have remarked, ‘Oh, my God, why me? Can’t we do something to stop it?’

These two paragraphs are so vividly written and tell you so much about JRD as a person. Wont you agree?

See the words written about Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw in CatchNews Here the author recalls some of Manekshaw’ s quotes

“In 1971, India and Pakistan fought a ferocious was for Bangladesh’s liberation. Former Prime minister Indira Gandhi was worried and went to Army chief General Sam Manekshaw. Gandhi asked Manekshaw, ‘are you ready for the war?’ to which Manekshaw replied ‘Sweety, I am always ready’. And Manekshaw, ever the braveheart, was defiant even in his last moments. “I am OK” were the last words he ever spoke two days before he died on 27 June 2008”

NY Times published obituary of Albert Einstein under the title “Dr. Albert Einstein Dies in Sleep at 76; World Mourns Loss of Great Scientist”

The obituary recalls some of Einstein’s quotes regarding his understanding of religion and God – something he was always asked about – of course apart from his contribution to the theory of relativity. The obituary quotes

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

Very well said and profound words.

But it is not easy to pen an obituary in a short while and especially when the newspaper has to publish the obituary for the readers overnight. Many news organizations therefore maintain prewritten (or pre-edited video) obituaries on file for notable individuals who are still living, in order to publish detailed, authoritative, and lengthy obituaries immediately upon learning of those individuals’ deaths. In the Los Angeles Times‘, obituary of Elizabeth Taylor, for example, was written in 1999 after three months of research, then often updated before the actress’ death in 2011.

It is reported that  the British Medical Journal encourages doctors to write their own obituaries for publication after their death in advance. I am not sure if they still really do. I wonder if I was asked to write my own obituary in advance and pass to Journal of Environmental Assessment and Management in India. That piece of writing won’t be easy for sure as it is not the same as writing a one-page biography. I don’t think obituaries should be self-written.

Talking about Journals, when I was the Co-Editor of the Journal of Indian Water Works Association, my job was to edit/review the submitted articles with the help of the editorial team and send response to the authors for the necessary “fix”. S. R. Kshirsagar was then the Editor of the Journal. He used to write the editorial as well as the obituaries. Mr Kshirsagar was with National Environmental Engineering Research Institute for almost his lifetime.  An ardent researcher and a very sincere and kind person and it was a privilege to work with him

When I asked him that I would like to attempt writing  the obituaries in the Journal, he smiled and said “Dr Modak, when you will take over the editorialship you will write. Right now, I am in charge, but a day will come, when you will write my obituary”. I remember we had a good laugh at that time.

After I took over as editor of the Journal, I started managing all aspects of journal production, including getting advertisements and arranging printing. I started writing obituaries of some of the great stalwarts of India’s water fraternity.

After a few years, I lost my touch with Mr. Kshirsagar. After passing away of his ailing wife, he had moved out from his Chembur residence in Mumbai to Thane to be with his daughter. There was no communication then over several years.

We came to know about his death six months later. At that time, the quarterly issue of the Journal was due after two more months. So, publishing Mr Kshirsagar ‘s obituary was going to be rather late. So the obituary never got written nor published. Today, I still recall our conversation and feel sad that I could not publish his obituary  in the Journal that he steered over 20 years!

Later, as the era of writing blogs on the web came , I wrote a few obituaries of some of the great environmentalists in India. Remembering Guru Das Agarwal is one such blog that many readers liked. I think this obituary simply came from the bottom of my heart.   I wrote

“His style of teaching was “minimal theory”, just to introduce the “basic science” but focus more on infusing the practice. Clearly he was more of a hands on person, “action oriented” (unlike most of us!), very precise and rational, and rather explicit and opiniated in drawing conclusions or making summary statements”

Today, The New York Times maintains a “deep reservoir” of roughly 1,600 to 1,700 advance obituaries and adds three new ones per week and uses up roughly the same number.  But despite this preparedness, The New York Times has been occasionally blindsided by the unforeseen early demise of certain celebrities, thereby forcing reporters to research and write obituaries on short notice.

My Professor Friend loves to write obituaries and his obituaries have all the right “ingredients”. The obituaries are limited to 1000 words but yet present an intimate perspective about the person compelling you to read more about his/her life. Besides, the obituaries always have his personal touch and stories about the person that no one knew.

I suspect however that Professor has an uncanny intuition about the death of some of the great personalities in advance. I feel that most of the time he must be simply updating his pre-prepared obituaries as I am always puzzled, how is he able to write obituaries of young personalities who have faced an untimely death and reach his text to the publishers, overnight. I find this is impossible.

I have  decided to raid Professors study room to locate his “diary of obituaries” when he is away or travelling. I am simply curious to find out who is the next?

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  1. Really very interesting read. Never imagined so much effort being put in writing obituaries. All the best Mr. Pramod in your efforts to get obituaries diary.

  2. Late Khirsagar was not lucky enough to have an obituary written by you. But a lurking hope tells me that I may not be that unlucky.

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