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GP 13 February 2008: Death Be Not Proud: The Grey Market

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art no so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou does overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shall die. - John Donne

Exeunt Omnes.  Lately we have taken a lot of cheer from reading the obituaries.  Sometimes they bring more than a gleam to the eye, summoning up hearty chortles.  The reasons for our bemusement are many. Death, it turns out, does not have to be a gloomy business, something long known to the Irish, who are famed for their soulful wakes.

Whew! We Made It.  A much-improved version of a Pete Seeger song goes like this: “I wake up in the morning / And read the obits. If my name’s not there / I know that my get up and go / Has not got up and went.”  By keeping our head low and marching to a different drummer, we discover that we have avoided the notice of any angry gods and lived to celebrate another day.  The beat goes on.  We’re cheered each day not to have been in the news.

Praiseworthy.  Then too, it’s wonderful to see people lauded for their exploits, real and imaginary, with their sins and foul deeds glossed over or forgotten.  Our media largely beats up on people, trying to purchase listeners or eyeballs through scandal and controversy.  It sandpapers the reputation off even the noblest of  men.  In politics this means that lesser candidates are able to drag men and women of great integrity down to their own level, ordering their subalterns to dish out a stew of lies to mediocre journalists. To read the jealous scribes, who are no more than bystanders, you would think all of life’s actors had feet totally made of clay.  But huge numbers of people are actually great, heroic, extraordinary.  When we read obituaries, we learn that many, many citizens of our land have been builders, braintrusts, and bulwarks.

Las Vegas, New MexicoLas Vegas is an end-of-the-line sort of place where you might just go to pack it in.  It’s seen better days.  Not that much happens there, though one senses that all sorts of mysteries are in motion behind drawn shades.  A college backed by the somewhat tainted oilman go-between Armand Hammer is at the edge of town—in Montezuma, somehow adding to the feeling that secret councils meet in its environs and that cults harbored there are drinking Kool Aid when we are not looking.  It’s called Armand Hammer United World College of the America West, though it has sort of dropped the ‘Hammer’ these days, wanting to forget its benefactor since he has bitten the dust.  This kind of eradication is common practice at  many universities and museums. 

How appropriate then that the International Association of Obituarists has held more than one of its annual conferences at the Plaza Hotel downtown.  The price is right, incidentally, though we’ve only sampled the luncheon fare, an easy convivial meal just a skip and a hop away from Santa Fe, where Governor Bill is growing his beard.  Las Vegas is a town where you might write about memories, so why not obituaries.

The lively get-togethers of this society only remind us of the surge in obituary writing the last few years.  Any metropolitan daily worth its salt now runs elaborate death notices that often as not are the best writing found in its pages.  By and large, the English papers do a better job than the American, having a much better feel for the tone and rhythm of those who lives are being re-created.  More on the English later.  The bottom line is that there has been a boom in the quantity and quality of obituary writing.

The Extraordinary.  To read the daily notices about those who have gone to the great chicken coop in the sky is to learn that often we are surrounded by very ordinary people who are terribly extraordinary. On January 7, 2008, Ed ‘Bozo’ Miller, a denizen of Oakland and eater par excellence, went over the great divide.  In Idaho Falls, Idaho, he once ate 30 pounds of elk and moose meatloaf.  Just after Christmas our old friend Charles Bethel Wheat took leave.  Who would have thought that this through-and-through Oklahoma American was born in pre-World War II Shanghai, his father a gunboat officer on the Panay?  Somehow that background helped make him one of this country’s finest speechwriters.  All this forgotten detail about ordinary heroes emerges in obituaries.

One Liners.  America’s ex-presidents and other glitzy figures have taken to writing their own extended obituaries.  They’re called memoirs, and they are mostly worthless.  We much prefer terse chaps who can put it short and sweet.  Johnny Carson’s suggestion for his tombstone was: “I’ll be right back.”  Ted Turner thought his should say: “I have nothing more to say.”  Americans have a knack for one-liners, none more so that Dorothy Parker who went the gents one better with her parting shot: “Pardon my Dust.” 

The Obituary King.  As we’ve said, the Brits do more lively obits than the Yanks.  It probably has something to do with the fact the United Kingdom still lives in its past, chained to its memories of Empire.  Or that its schools place such emphasis on the art of putting one word in front of another.  This idea is nicely illustrated “In Memory of Huge Massingberd” by Andrew McKie of The Telegraph:

The promotion of the form from a notorious backwater (in The Front Page, one of the reporters is threatened with demotion to the Obits Desk) to one of the most popular pages in the paper is entirely due to Hugh's brilliance in recognising what obituaries could, and should, be: entertaining and comprehensive accounts of interesting lives in any sphere. Against much resistance and overcoming all sorts of impediments, he created a template, and an atmosphere, which every obits editor on the Telegraph since has attempted to follow.  But he is irreplaceable.

He was a giant; though his other work (notably as the finest editor ever of Burke's Peerage, and as one of the foremost experts on country houses) would on its own have been enough to secure him plaudits. He was also an awfully funny, generous, kind, clever and entertaining man. I shall miss him tremendously.

McKie’s remembrance, a bit short, still has the emotion and telling detail that makes for a better obituary.  Further, his reverence for the obituary and for a master obituary writer tell us that this writing form is highly honored in the British Isles, part of the reason that it thrives there.  With all art, it is not enough to have a very fine painter: great things don’t happen unless you have an avid audience with a keen taste for what’s good.

Cats With Nine Lives.  What we can most discover in better obituaries is that people of interest have several lives and multiple personalities.  The one-dimensional labels society sticks on them are hardly descriptive.  Maxwell MacLeod, one of our overseas correspondents, brought this to mind when he sent us a recent good bye for Roger Banks 1929-2008.  Banks was a writer, painter, gardening journalist, fine-house restorer, and harbourmaster at Crail in Scotland. An impish sort of fellow, he found himself afoul of the law once for using his pug dog as a headrest in the car:

Stories about Roger are legion. In one he is alleged to have been taken before a magistrate for allowing his pug dog to be used as a head rest whilst he was driving his car, the charge being that he was carrying an unsecured load.

His defence, that the dog had previously traveled many hundreds of miles in that position without any harm, did him few favours.  Guilty as charged.

He’d been to Antartica, too.  Clearly he was a man of parts, which is all we can ask from life’s great actors as they stroll across the stage that time and space has dealt them.  Banks and other like him probably instruct us that if you want to get something done hire somebody who can do lots of things.

Grey Anatomy.  The rise and rise of obituaries is terribly revealing.  It’s not just that we’ve taken a liking to people who’ve met their maker.  Fact is, more people are dying.  In all the developed countries, the senior population began to equal the numbers of juniors for the first time in the 1990s.  People in the developed countries are growing old at such a fast rate now that they threaten to lay waste to the health and social security systems of many of the so-called advanced countries.  The growing dominance of seniors is already changing the politics of nation after nation, seniors often having a short-term point of view about their community and about where their interests lay.  Retirees in particular want to be undisturbed and to have enough funds to see them out the door.

The rise of the obituary is symbolic of our changing demographics.  Seniors read, and they don’t mind reading in detail about those who were part of their generation. Hence, more obituaries.  Smarter publishers and editors, in fact, will do a better job of attending to just what the over-fifties want to learn about and hear about.  Older citizens even have time to read newspapers and magazines, and are not overly thrilled with the digital outpourings of the young and the restless.

In fact, businesses in America have hardly come to terms with this simple truth.  Consumer businesses either will get better aligned with the aging, or they will slowly dwindle.  There’s all sorts of very expensive consolidations going on in business at the moment where firms get sandwiched together.  The only people making money out of this merger business are the investment bankers and the private equity firms.  The M & A boom is only an illusionary fix for business.  We’re neglecting the senior half of our marketplace, and, to boot, we are often talking about people with real money in their pockets.

Serving the old is not the only thing that a business needs to do to survive in high cost America as it tries to compete in a global economy.  But getting grey will help a whole lot. In “Secrets of Old Age” and in several other places on the Global Province, we have suggested that we need to stare old age and death in the face and get much better prepared for a nation getting long in the tooth.

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