14/11/2013 12:33 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Obituaries - Life After Death

There have been several major deaths recently - singer Lou Reed, broadcaster John Cole and composer Sir John Tavener spring immediately to mind. As the former obituaries editor at BBC News and now a freelance obituary writer, I know from experience the pronounced feeling of self-satisfaction such deaths engender if you have prepared the obituaries in advance.

It's no secret that media outlets have many hundreds of obituaries ready to be rolled out as soon as a death is announced. In this era of 24-hour news projected from a variety of platforms, viewers and readers have come to expect an obituary of a major figure to appear straight away. For a TV obit of a film star, for example, one needs to select say four or five of their best or at least most representative films from which the most suitable or poignant clips need to be chosen. This can take time. Then one requires further footage of them against which to write a script and excerpts of interviews in which they talk about aspects of themselves before the piece has to be edited together. This process might take up to three days. Not preparing in advance risks the end result looking shoddy and rushed. The criteria for deciding which famous person requires a television obituary are if they are old, ill or vulnerable. The last might include those with dangerous occupations like mountaineers or polar explorers. It would also number those with unstable or reckless lifestyles, as occurred with Paula Yates, George Best and Amy Winehouse. One exception to this rule is the royal family. I was as shocked as anyone else when Princess Diana died, but my feelings were tempered by the fact that, by a stroke of luck, I'd updated her obit only a couple of months before her fatal car crash.

There were a number of reasons I jumped at the chance of working in BBC obituaries when I saw the job advertised. I had loved reading written obits particularly in those old Daily Telegraph compilations. They were full of barking mad aristocrats like the general who went into battle carrying an umbrella and when asked what useful purpose it might serve against an artillery bombardment replied, "But what if it rains?" Or the Lord who in a speech in the House declared that Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev were one and the same person. Obituaries can be witty too - a favourite is from Douglas Martin of the New York Times:-

"Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra-size, mostly with a discerning glance, never a tape measure, has died... She was 95 and a 34B."

Obituaries can be funny because they are concerned not with death but with life. I recall the fun I had writing a newspaper obit of the journalist Bob Friend. He had a habit, when drunk, of climbing the nearest tree and barking like a dog. He did this, as a junior reporter, after interviewing the then UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald Maudling who had been generous with the whisky. He barked and howled for hours in their garden and eventually had to be coaxed down while Mrs Maudling looked on with great concern. Working at the BBC was a broadcast obituarist's paradise in that one had access not only to news footage but also to that of sport, religion, science, entertainment and the rest. One could revel in the oratory of Michael Foot, the sporting prowess of Bobby Moore or the thespian genius of Sir John Gielgud.

The modern obituary, especially those in print, tries to paint a rounded picture of the subject including faults as well as attributes. This can bring pitfalls. Voltaire once said, "To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe the truth." In my novel, Little Black Trains, a comedy centred around two obit writers, one of them takes this maxim more literally than the other. He includes in his obituaries details such as affairs, criminal records, hidden sexuality and so on. He ends up enmeshed in a tangle of murder and mayhem. His point is that obituaries are written for his readers not for the family. The other takes a more balanced view, taking into account family sensibilities. Obituarists are often faced with these kind of ethical dilemmas. The most difficult case I encountered was when a wife implored me not to mention her husband's mistress and his two children by her. I had to resist since the people to whom she was referring were also grieving for a loved one. Long gone are the days of not speaking ill of the dead. If I find enough people saying a person had a particularly violent temper or could not suffer fools gladly, then I would include these frailties in order to make them appear more human. Sadly, euphemisms that were often employed to soften criticism in obituaries, such as "He was sociable and affable at every hour" (alcoholic) or "He relished the cadences of the English language" (windbag) have gone out of fashion.

In general, writing obituaries about those who have made their mark on society, in whatever way, has taught me something about life. I never tire of listening to accounts of how people have striven to achieve what they did, the passion they have displayed, the compassion they may have shown, the principles they held and the influence they have exerted. Obituaries can tell wonderful stories and can be lessons too.

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