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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 December, 2004, 11:47 GMT
A year in the life of an obituary writer
By Bob Chaundy
BBC News profiles unit

Ronald Reagan
Farewell from the Gipper
This has been a busy year for us obituarists. And although we are sometimes dubbed "prophets of doom", we have more concern for life than for death.

It is the fate of the famous for which the obituarist is concerned.

It is, however, the fate of the obituarist that he or she is regularly subjected to the question "Who's going to die next?"

For nearly a decade my answer has been Ronald Reagan - hardly a stroke of insight since the former president was already exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer's disease while still in office in the late 1980s.

World leaders

There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary
Brendan Behan
Finally, this summer, the prediction came true in what, for the obituarist, has been, a busy year.

For not only did the 40th President of the United States meet his maker, so too did Yasser Arafat, the embodiment of the Palestinian struggle.

In the arts field, we saw the demise of Marlon Brando, to many the greatest-ever screen actor, and Ray Charles, one of the most important influences in popular music.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat died in France
Dame Alicia Markova died too, Britain's first prima ballerina assoluta who helped establish the ballet tradition in her native Britain.

And there was Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the first people credited with making photography an art form.

Journalism lost two giants. Alistair Cooke was the supreme broadcaster whose Letter from America earned him worldwide acclaim.

Paul Foot was famous only in Britain but earned a reputation as a radical campaigner against injustice.

Broadcaster and disc-jockey John Peel was little known outside this country too. His appeal was unique, bridging generations and different classes of people.

Unexpected deaths

The last two died relatively young, something obituarists dread. For a good obituary needs to be prepared in advance.

The reader will expect a well-crafted assessment of the subject's life and that takes time. In the case of TV, it can be several days.

Don't be fooled that the lot of an obituarist is a gloomy one

The main criteria for deciding which subjects befit an obituary is that they are ill or old, by which I mean mid-70s onwards.

Some obituaries have been gathering dust on the shelf for years.

The renowned classical harpist Sidonie Goossens died at the remarkable age of 105; Princess Alice, the Queen's aunt, was 102; Reagan, Cooke, Cartier-Bresson, Markova, Lord Scarman, Molly Weir and Fay Wray all lived into their 90s.

Celebrating life

On the other hand, Christopher Reeve was only 52, but his physical condition was known to be precarious, as was Brian Clough's.

But Peel, Alan Bates and Caron Keating, whose cancer was kept secret from the general public, took everyone, obituarists included, by surprise.

It's particularly sad when people, such as these last three, die relatively young. But don't be fooled that the lot of an obituarist is a gloomy one.

Broadcaster and DJ John Peel
John Peel bridged the generation gap
There's no slap and clammy slither of clay where obits are concerned. We celebrate life not death.

Imagine the fun to be had listening to the hilarious anecdotes required for Sir Peter Ustinov's obit or watching episodes of Auf Wiedersehen Pet for Pat Roach's.

Then, there was the shower scene for Janet Leigh's send-off, one of the most memorable in cinematic history, or the look of pride on the face of the marvellously eccentric steeple-jack Fred Dibnah when he'd successfully demolished one of his chimneys.

Loaded questions

And don't labour under the misapprehension, too, that obituaries are hagiographies. While it's true that on the day of death we may err towards the positives in people's lives, (the Harold Shipmans of this world excepted), we cannot ignore negatives.

While we emphasised the contribution of President Reagan in ending the Cold War, it would have been wrong not to have pointed out that his highly delegatory style of government led to the illegal siphoning of proceeds from arms sales to Iran to fund the "contra" rebels' fight against the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua.

Alistair Cooke
Who could forget Alistair Cooke's distinctive voice?
It would have been remiss, as well, not to refer to the corruption rife in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Obituarists are often accused of wanting people to die. A colleague once said of me "When Bob says 'how are you?' it's a loaded question."

I admit to professional excitement when the death is announced of someone whose obituary one has devoted much time to completing.

But privately, we have some corpuscles of humanity flowing through our veins.

In fact, I had personally met and liked four of my "victims" this year - Peel, Scarman, former Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

There's nothing "dead-end" about the job, nor are we dominated by "deadlines". In the words of Patrick Marber from his play Closer, "It's a living."


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