The first funeral I ever attended was one of those wacky affaires enlivened by jaw-dropping moments when the assembled throng could not believe the Dear Departed’s Best Beloved had chosen something so totally opposite of anything the Dear Departed would have favored while above ground.
I had no idea what was happening or what to do next. Mercifully, my uncle’s partner came to the rescue. He had been raised by his grandmother, a Victorian lady of high principles who was an avid newspaper reader. Every day she scanned the obituaries column to find the most promising funerals to attend, hoping to find dynamic family interactions. After years of attending funerals under her tutelage, my uncle’s partner knew very well just how strongly life can pulse even at graveside.
He also left me with a residual fascination for obituaries. If I find the obituary page in a newspaper, I will read it – because there’s almost always unexpected history in a person’s life. Whether it’s a celebrity or an everyday person, a political genius or a scientist – it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll at least glance through the person’s history to see how their story came together.
Historical editions of newspapers are fascinating, too. If nothing else, they give me a feel for how contemporaries felt about the Dear Departed. “One of the most sagacious statesmen that England ever produced” said the London Times about Sir Robert Peel in 1850, as compared to the New York Times Magazine’s description of a CIA founder, “conservative politics, social views that included crude prejudice against Jews and blacks and a manner that could veer from fawning on the great to public abuse of menials.”
Then there are the obits that make me want to meet the people involved. “At Paris, also, he met the Countess d’Agoult, well known in the literary world as ‘Daniel Stern,’ who for years remained attached to him. By her he had three children – a boy who died in infancy, a daughter, also dead, who married Emile Ollivier, the statesman who went into the Franco-German war ‘with a light heart,’ and a second daughter, the widow of Richard Wagner, who survives her father,” said the London Times about Franz Liszt.
Or, “Mrs. Garrett Anderson Anderson remained the only female member of the British Medical Association until 1892…Recently her powers were failing; but she was fond of going to London stations to wish God-speed to soldiers starting for the front. Mrs. Garrett Anderson’s sister is Dr. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, to whose husband the blind Postmaster-General she acted as medical advisor. Her son, Sir Alan Garrett Anderson, last August succeeded Sir Eric Geddes as Controller of the Navy; and the first list of appointments to the new Order of the British Empire, which we published last August, contained not only his name among the Knight Commanders, but that of his sister, Dr. Garrett Anderson, among the Commanders, as ‘organizer of the first hospital run by women at the front,’” wrote the London Times about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
And, even more simply, “It was one hot day when she decided her oldest son Thad plow that she decided her children wouldn’t spend their lives following a mule through the South Carolina dirt,” said the Philadelphia Daily News.
I also enjoy reading obits for samples of period prose. “That he might perfect his formidable military machinery he provoked unpopularity by laying heavy burdens upon Prussia, by exacting what seemed in those days to be an unendurable blood-tax, and by setting the popular Chamber at defiance when it refused him the indispensable money votes,” complained the London Times about Bismarck.
Or, “He often participated in scientific meetings, where he could be irascible while amusing his colleagues with profane asides,” said the New York Times about Maurice Hilleman, a microbiologist who’s saved probably more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.
Obits may be occasioned by death but they’re full of life, a treasure trove for a historical novelist.
Do you read historical newspapers, too? What hidden corners do you like to mine for voices from the past?
1. Marilyn Johnson. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Harper Perennial, New York, 2006.
2. The Times. Great Victorian Lives, An Era in Obituaries. Gen. Ed. by Ian Brunskill, ed. by Prof. Andrew Sanders. Times Books, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2007.