Thursday, April 18, 2013

Getting Obits Right

Neither of the two newspapers I read daily seems to get their obituaries right.  The Washington Post does try to run an obit for almost anyone, but rarely runs them before weeks have passed since the subject's death. You have to be very important to have a story run the day after or even the next day after that.

Being very important doesn't get you an obit in the N.Y. Times anymore. Now the obituaries there--yes, if you're a truly world figure, you'll get one as a news story--focus on people who are, for lack of a better word, quirky.  Someone who gave an unusual performance of something or other or someone who excelled in an art that remains mostly obscure.  

I thought about this today when I read the death notices--the ones in tiny print--in the Times. This is where people who previously were regarded as significant, people who had made major societal contributions or been influential leaders of powerful or prominent or vital institutions, now are remembered.  In previous Times, the paper would have written obits about them--now their heirs or institutions pay premium prices for lengthy recitations in the agate type.

Two notices--both very long--stood out today. One was about a Dr. Richard A. Bader, who clearly was a major medical figure with a distinguished career at Mt. Sinai in New York, complete with major research, fabled teaching and clinical prowess, and overall lasting impact on generations of patients, colleagues, and students.  

The other was about Dr. Gerald W. Lynch, who was president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York, for decades.  Dr. Lynch, I learned from the notice, had actually saved the college back in the '70s when budget-cutters wanted to kill it.  Not only did he preserve it, he was the mastermind behind a new campus and was lauded by the present incumbent and the Chancellor of CUNY at the time of Lynch's retirement.

At one time, there would have been genuine obituaries about these major New York City figures. But not now. The rather warped view the newspaper now takes in seeking out rather weird deaths to report reminds me of when it reformed its obituary practice many years ago--in the 1960s, I believe--to make obituaries less worshipful and more news-oriented.  The then-new style presented the pluses and minuses of the deceased, something different from the prior practice of respectful attention to career and accomplishments.

In retrospect, I should have seen where that shift would lead--to the present strange kind of obit. One of the first major figures chronicled in the new, very critical kind of obituary was, as the princes of the church were then styled, Francis Cardinal Spellman, long one of New York's and the nation's most powerful clerics.  

The late cardinal certainly had both fervent admirers and harsh critics. One who had great regard for him was the late William F. Buckley, Jr. In a column he noted that how the Times had approached writing about the cardinal produced something less than worshipful prose. He added deliciously that the cardinal's power during his life had been so great that Buckley believed the newspaper would never have written something so critical of the cardinal had the latter still been alive.  It was, he concluded, all the more reason to mourn his passing.

April 24 Post-Script: I was wrong about the Times, as a day or two later, they ran a fairly long obit on Gerald Lynch. Oh well, there are plenty of other juicy long death notices most days that don't get full obit treatment.

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