The obituaries writer: A matter of life and death

As obituaries editor at the BBC for 18 years, it was Bob Chaundy's job to have tributes prepared – sometimes years in advance. Yet far from being morbid, his daily work teemed with life

The Australian obituary writer Mark McGinness once attended a party with Dame Maggie Smith. When she asked him what he did for a living, his answer was received with "an icy stare of utter disdain". And, he added, "no one does disdain better than Dame Maggie Smith".

This typical reaction, however, misunderstands the obituarist's craft. Yes, death might provide the starting point for the obituary writer, but the obituaries themselves are teeming with life. My 18 years as head of TV obituaries at BBC News – trawling through miles of footage, seeking those gems that best encapsulated the subject's life – were anything but morbid. I might revel in the perfect diction of an actor such as Sir John Gielgud ("all cello and woodwind"), the rousing oratory of Michael Foot, a sublime piece of skill from Sir Stanley Matthews or the exquisite timing of Frank Sinatra – the list is endless.

It's no secret that the BBC has several hundred obituaries for TV, radio and its website ready and waiting to be broadcast on the person's death. TV obituaries focus on the famous. Newspapers, which deal with a far greater cross-section of subjects, have many more on the stocks. It might seem strange to some that obituaries need to be prepared before death but the reason is simple. In the age of 24-hour news, viewers and readers expect the obituary of a major figure to appear as soon as possible. For a TV obit of a film star, for example, one needs to select 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 is 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 whether that person is old, ill or vulnerable. The last might include those with dangerous occupations such as mountaineers or racing drivers or those with unstable or reckless lifestyles, such as with Paula Yates, George Best and Amy Winehouse.

As with all obituary writers, I have to admit to a feeling of self-satisfaction when the news of a death of someone for whom you have worked hard to prepare an obit is announced. In Princess Diana's case, I was euphoric since I had updated hers only six weeks previously. Only after the adrenaline has subsided does one regain the perspective and reflect on the death.

I say that obituaries are about life, but their preparation does sometimes involve facing people's uneasy feelings about mortality. For example, I learnt very quickly that it was largely a waste of time seeking interviews for an obit from friends or family before the subject had died. Pundits and biographers may be happy to co-operate, but those close to the person won't oblige either because they find it uncomfortable, bad form or don't want to tempt fate. In one case, Tony Benn granted me an interview about his friend the backbench Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, Eric Heffer, when we learnt he had become ill with terminal cancer. Benn asked me for a copy of his tribute so that he could send it to Heffer, which I believe he did. Benn must have been confident it would receive the right response.

On the other hand, I was once introduced to Tony Blair by his then aide and my former colleague, Lance Price, with the words, "Tony, this is Bob Chaundy. He has written your obituary", to which Blair looked understandably uncomfortable and replied: "I'd rather not have known that."

On two occasions, I filmed people on the pretext that our library required up-to-date footage of them. While that was partly true, it was also because I needed pictures for their obituaries. I felt a little uncomfortable since I wondered if they might have twigged. For the same reason, I have never written an obituary of someone I knew before they've died. I have penned several afterwards, though. The difficult part is setting the right tone, after which I treat them the same as any other I've written, though including perhaps a personal detail or observation. Talking to friends and family of the obit subject after death can be most rewarding. In the six years I have been writing newspaper obits, I've found them most co-operative and informative, flattered that their loved ones are receiving public recognition of a distinguished life. The process can be therapeutic, too, for the bereaved, and listening to them talking about the person they have lost can be fascinating and humbling.

There are pitfalls, however. 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 seriously than the other. He includes in his obituaries details such as affairs, criminal records, hidden sexuality and so on. 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 often encounter these kinds 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 the de mortuis nil nisi bonum convention, 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.

Bob Chaundy was head of obituaries at the BBC for 18 years. He is now a freelance obituaries writer. To find out more about his book 'Little Black Trains', or to buy a copy, go to littleblacktrains.com or via Amazon.co.uk

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