Obituaries to Die For

Tom Bullamore opened his talk at Haverford College this Monday with an apology to audience members who may have recently lost a loved one. He then jumped immediately into the heart of “Make ‘em Laugh, Make ‘em Cry: Obituaries to Die For,” a rolicking journey through the history of the obituary from its 17th century origins to its current postmodern form.

The Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies Program, which seeks individuals whose areas of expertise fall outside the umbrella of what we typically think of as “creative arts,” funded Bullamore’s brief visit to Haverford.  The award-winning obituary writer drew an impressive crowd — one of the largest to pack into the lecture room, according to program coordinator Tom Bonner.

Bullamore’s 20 years at the UK’s Daily Telegraph and scholarship on the “postmodern obituary” distinguish him as a leader in his genre. He specializes in the lives of classical musicians, but has additionally written on high-stakes lives and deaths, including the victims of the 2005 bombings in London.

The postmodern obituary, born from the rapid reduction in the price of newsprint in 1986, is characterized by its candor and its efforts to “get inside” a life to tell a story. “Everyone has something that makes them a little more interesting,” Bullamore said. Sometimes, that “something” — like the death of a prominent politician in a massage parlor — can raise ethical questions for writers on what to publish and what to disregard.

Situating his occupation within the wider lens of historical construction, Bullamore illustrated the obituaries’ contributions to how societies think of their pasts and presents. Decisions concerning which lives to remember and which to forget reflect evolving societal values, as seen by the advent of celebrity and Average Joe obituaries to the canon. Additionally, editorial choices can emphasize public interests and concerns. In reviewing the obituaries of the 2005 London attacks, he pointed out the Telegraph’s choice to print the write-up on a young Muslim victim at the head of the section — an attempt to diffuse the alarming racial tensions fueled by the bombings, which were carried out by four Islamic fundamentalists.

The “who” of obituaries also reflects the exclusionary practices of newspaper editorial boards: according to Bullamore, roughly 80 percent of obituaries in the top four newspapers in the United Kingdom — the Guardian, The Times, the Daily Telegraph and The Independent — highlight deceased males, and roughly 40 percent feature Oxford or Cambridge graduates. Bullamore seems to see this as incidental, in that “we tend to find people like us more interesting.”

While at Haverford, Bullamore spoke to classes on how to write an obituary (step one: make sure the subject is dead) and answered questions ranging from advanced obituaries (the Queen’s is an eight-page tribute updated every two years) to differences between British and American obituary writing styles.

Bonner viewed the short “residency” as a success, although he hopes to facilitate longer stays in his new role as program coordinator. “My goal will be to plan residencies that are more dynamic,” he said in an email. “This means longer stays, more Tri-Co involvement, and a variety of opportunities for students to interact with residents.”

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