As sudden death stalks us during the pandemic, what do books and writers tell us about obituaries?

05.09.2020
As sudden death stalks us during the pandemic, what do books and writers tell us about obituaries?
Pixabay

PUBLISHING AND THE PANDEMIC

How do you ensure that a human being isn’t reduced to a statistic?

Aditya Mani Jha

On June 14, as the first reports of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death started coming in, social media was littered with proclamations of shock and disbelief, many of them from writers and journalists I knew. What did I do? I quietly left a message with an editor I write for regularly: “Putting my hand up for a Sushant obituary should you need one.” In about ten minutes, the confirmation arrived. I started writing and an hour and a half later, the obituary was up on the Internet.

It’s a tough business, this freelance journalism, and there’s little room for belaboured musing here. Getting steady business can be an uphill task, especially at a time like this, when India’s newspaper industry is in free fall. Layoffs and shutdowns are legion while career journalists are turning their backs on the profession. So you best believe me when I say that a famous person’s death, while tragic, represents the sound of the cash register for me these days, first and foremost. They lived, they burned bright and now they rest.

Meanwhile, my rent isn’t going to pay itself – this is what I have taught myself to believe. I have little doubt that 19-year-old me would have colourful, unprintable things to say about my ongoing cynicism. But he never had to pay rent, come to think of it.

When the writer David Foster Wallace hanged himself in 2008, 19-year-old me barely uttered a word for two whole days (that’s like two months for a teenager). Today, I have essentially forgotten what it’s like to be morose over a writer or an artist’s death. Over the last year or so, I’ve written obituaries for titans like Girish Karnad, Toni Morrison, Irrfan Khan and Rahat Indori, among several others – it’s fair to say that I grew up with their art.

My mother and I have watched Maqbool together on DVD more times than I can remember. I helped stage a couple of Karnad plays in college, and Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz was how one day, at age 14, I asked Maa why men seemed to hit their wives an awful lot in books and movies.

According to most people I’ve read on the subject, the deaths of these writers and artists should have affected me deeply and (this is important) disruptively. Instead, on every one of these occasions I hammered out a perfectly serviceable 800-word obituary within hours, and felt weird right afterwards. When Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor died on consecutive days (April 29 and 30, respectively) during lockdown, I was going through an insomniac patch.

Red-eyed and benumbed by the freakish circumstances at play, I wrote back-to-back pieces. Much as I would’ve liked to stay in bed (and not sleep) it just made no sense to turn down work at a time like this. I hammered myself with brute force pragmatism: there’s a demand for this, and it could either be me or somebody else meeting that demand.

I sleepwalked through conversations with friends and family on the phone, especially when they brought up the Bollywood duo: yes it’s awful, the way they didn’t get a proper send-off on account of the lockdown, maybe when all this is over? I’m doing fine, thanks.

Obituaries and the pandemic

During a rare week where I took on no new assignments, I read a fair bit about the history of the practice. The very first obituaries, it seems, were written by the Romans on one of their daily papyrus missives. By the time the Civil War started in real earnest in America, the obituary took on alternative names like “memorial advertisement” or my personal favourite, the “bill of mortality” (can there be a more American spin on the situation?).

War, natural disaster or widespread destruction through some other channel – these were the times when the obituary took on additional significance, not least because it would get difficult to keep track of the deaths otherwise. In fact, the form and style of what would become the 20th century newspaper obituary (and much as I’d like to believe otherwise, my own style hews closely to this rather old-fashioned aesthetic) were informed by the staccato bulletins marking the lives and deaths of Civil War soldiers.

It wasn’t just a matter of being fashionably stoic – printing was very difficult back then (late 18th-early 19th century) and editors liked to keep it short and crisp. If the aliens looked at American newspaper obituaries of George Washington himself, they’d hardly guess this was one of the most important men of the era.

The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, has obituary writers working overtime all around the world, especially in the UK and the US. It’s not just the specialists – accidental practitioners like me are also swamped. Sukhada Tatke, writing for Wired UK in June, noted: “Obituary writers are faced with the challenge of preserving life stories against this backdrop, and distilling the fullness of life for readers at a time when their professional rhythm has been upended. As the death toll has multiplied steadily around the world, so too has their work.”

After I read The New York Times’ “Those We’ve Lost” a couple of months ago, I gained a greater appreciation of just how difficult – and vital – this job is. This one-of-a-kind feature, which took several months to plan, research and execute, collects excerpts from newspapers across America – specifically the obituaries section, to capture the lives and deaths of ordinary Americans who lost their lives to Covid-19.

Reading “Those We’ve Lost” is an emotionally loaded experience. In the online version, you scroll down and the names just keep coming up, alongside little snippets that tell you something crucial about their lives. I dare you to read for longer than ten minutes without choking up a little.

  • Helen Molina, 85, Washington (“All-round supporter of the Washington Huskies”)
  • Norman Walker Jr, 80, China Township, Michigan (“Shared his produce with food pantries and his neighbours”)
  • Julie Butler, 62, New York City (“Veterinarian who served Harlem”)
  • Lila A. Fenwick, 87, New York City (“First black woman to graduate from Harvard Law School”)

Why are projects like “Those We’ve Lost” so important? For starters, they offer a sense of closure to the loved ones of the departed. It makes them feel seen, acknowledged. An obituary, even a very well-written one, cannot hope to capture all the high points of a long, rich life, of course. But it can and often does ensure that a human being isn’t reduced to a statistical footnote, which happens so often with victims of large-scale tragedies.

This phenomenon was depicted through an elaborate device in the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. This remarkable 1,000-page novel is about the unsolved murders of hundreds of young women in Santa Teresa (a fictional Mexican town) over many decades. One of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Murders” is a harrowing 300-page document filled with descriptions of murder after gruesome murder. Gradually, the descriptions begin to feature less and less of the victims and who they were – even as the murderous acts are described in ever-escalating detail. The murders are, quite literally, obscuring the lives of these women.

Big little moments

In 2013, back when I was a cub reporter, I interviewed the Brazilian comic book artists Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon at the New Delhi Comic-Con. In their graphic novel Daytripper, a young obituary writer, Brás de Oliva Domingos, is struggling to find his voice as a novelist, even as he writes obituaries all day, every day for a local daily. After an emotional encounter with his father, an acclaimed novelist, Brás realises that “we always seem to remember the trivial things from our daily lives (...) yet we so often forget the most important ones”.

From that point on, Daytripper becomes a chronicle of some of the most meaningful moments in Brás’s life – with one important disclaimer. At the end of each chapter, each big moment, Brás dies. Hit by a car, drowned, shot, stabbed – every beautiful or hurtful or otherwise noteworthy moment in his life is re-imagined with a tragic finale.

What exactly is going on with this narrative device? As the final chapters of the book reveal, Brás did go on to write his own widely-read, much-loved novels. So we assume that at some point, he overcame his writer’s block, and therein nestles a clue. The “deaths” are mnemonic tools used by Bras the novelist, bookmarks to commemorate what he considered to be the most important days of his life – the day he reconnected with his father, the day his son was born, the day he began to write his novel and so on.

Brás re-imagined his life’s highlights reel, with deaths inserted at the end of every chapter – so he wouldn’t forget exactly how he felt, what he thought about. Death as the punch line to an elaborate joke, as Epictetus’s purple thread in a sea of white. As Brás’s father says at one point, “Only when you accept that one day you’ll die can you let go, and make the best out of life. And that’s the big secret. That’s the miracle.”

Unlike Brás I am not looking to solve a writerly problem, but the pandemic has enforced acceptance in my life, too. Everybody I love may not survive. The virus may claim one or many or all of the people I’ve agonised over not seeing for over a year now, starting with my parents who aren’t getting any younger. In every obituary I write, I see the names and faces that I dread seeing in this particular context (my mother, my father, my siblings). So I flip it around and place myself on the line instead. Like Brás, I “die” multiple times in order to hold on to what I feel right now, the way I felt throughout April and May.

When I’m summarising a life in bite-sized chunks these days, I know that one day, somebody will pay it forward, do the same for me (even though I’m not famous and will never be). And while that doesn’t necessarily amount to what Camus called “a happy death”, it’ll do.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.


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The New York Times.  ‘You Should Break Up With Me’.
Life can be fleeting. She wanted to make sure he knew the risks of connection.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/style/modern-love-widow-cancer-break-up-with-me.html

The New York Times. Grisly Slabs of Gothic Horror
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/05/books/review/gothic-horror-books-weird-women.html
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