Revered by colleagues and adored by family and friends, Chris Maume, who has died at the age of 102 after a long and vigorous life, was widely acclaimed as the finest obituaries editor of his generation...
This is one possible intro to my obituary, were I writing it myself (other intros are available). The Homeland actor James Rebhorn, who died a few days ago, was considerably more modest when he did his. In a heartfelt piece, which concludes, "He was a very lucky man in every way", he gives love and thanks to everyone who helped make his life such a well-lived one.
Wearing my professional hard hat, I'd have to say it reads not so much like an obituary as a particularly eloquent and dignified awards-ceremony acceptance speech. But then it's not really written to place James Rebhorn, character actor with an illustrious list of credits, in a biographical context. Any reader unfamiliar with his acting career would come out none the wiser. It's addressed to those who knew him, to make them feel slightly better about his passing, perhaps, and it is immensely touching.
In a similar vein, Tony Benn's 40-second message recorded several years ago for a Channel 4 news crew and released when he died a couple of weeks ago – it's on YouTube – is essentially an expression of love for his family. The only allusion to Benn the public figure comes at the end: "I hope that I didn't give offence, because I tried to speak my mind."
The wit and wisdom of Tony Benn
The wit and wisdom of Tony Benn
1/15 Tony Benn Quotes
1. Making mistakes is part of life. The only things I would feel ashamed of would be if I had said things I hadn't believed in order to get on. Some politicians do do that.
2/15 Tony Benn Quotes
2. All war represents a failure of diplomacy.
3/15 Tony Benn Quotes
3. The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin's Russia: it's like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain.
4/15 Tony Benn Quotes
4. Broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters.
5/15 Tony Benn Quotes
5. The one thing that is absolutely essential is that there shouldn't be any governmental control [of the media] directly or indirectly.
6/15 Tony Benn Quotes
6. I've had a very full life, and I've enjoyed it very much. I've learned a great deal and feel indebted to all the people who have worked so hard.
7/15 Tony Benn Quotes
7. I see myself as an old man and an unqualified teacher to the nation. I think being a teacher is probably the most important thing you can be in politics.
8/15 Tony Benn Quotes
8. A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world.
9/15 Tony Benn Quotes
9. I've got four lovely children, ten lovely grandchildren, and I left parliament to devote more time to politics, and I think that what is really going on in Britain is a growing sense of alienation. People don't feel anyone listens to them.
10/15 Tony Benn Quotes
10. I do not share the general view that market forces are the basis of personal liberty.
11/15 Tony Benn Quotes
11. "Parliament is the buckle that links the street to the statute book."
12/15 Tony Benn Quotes
12. "The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it - a bit like Christians in the Church of England."
13/15 Tony Benn Quotes
13. "I think New Labour is probably over."
14/15 Tony Benn Quotes
14. "All progress comes from underneath. All real achievements are collective."
15/15 Tony Benn Quotes
15. "You can't create democracy by invasion."
The best-known auto-obituarist is Spike Milligan, who did his for The Sunday Correspondent (which he outlived by nearly 12 years), having got the idea when he was shown his advance obituary by a copygirl on a newspaper in Australia. The Milligan patter is there from the outset: "I was educated first at the Convent of Jesus and Mary where I consistently passed top of the class. While I was there the nuns had 16 immaculate conceptions." There follows a brisk, witty canter through his colourful life, some of it even true, and he concludes with a list of his hobbies – "writing The Goon Show and dying".
Serious points have been made in obit selfies. Bernard Manning was asked to write his by the Daily Mail. No surprise that it's stuffed full of terrible jokes, but there is a fleeting reference to how he was dropped by TV in the 1980s, though it is only one line and he doesn't come across as bitter. Of Jewish immigrant stock, he says, he does take the time to firmly deny being racist, citing his appearance at Clive Lloyd's testimonial and the fundraisers he did for the boxer John Conteh and cricketer Farokh Engineer.
Sometimes obit selfies have a very specific purpose. When a man named Val Patterson wrote his for The Salt Lake Tribune a couple of years ago, he needed to come clean on a few things. "As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June 1971," he confessed. And as for his doctorate from the University of Utah: "The day I went to pay off my college student loan at the U of U, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail."
Elizabeth Sleasman had a fine motive for writing her obituary. She died last year near Seattle after 25 years of drugs and alcohol abuse, and wanted to leave a warning to others on that path. Her piece is heartbreaking. "During the last 10 years, I never knew from one day to the next where I was going to be, I ate out of garbage cans, begged, and stole. I slept in bushes, doorways, abandoned vehicles, and nearly froze to death in the winter."
She concludes with a piece of advice to other users: "I have quit now, but I am dead; don't wait as long as I did."
A self-penned piece by Walter George Bruhl Jr, of Delaware, went viral earlier this month after his grandson posted it on Reddit, and was clearly written to give his family a bit of a laugh and ease the pain somewhat. He writes of his early adulthood in the military – "he chose this path because of Hollywood propaganda, to which he succumbed as a child during World War II" – and his subsequent career in industry.
On his deathbed, he writes: "He was surrounded by his loving wife of 57 years, Helene Sellers Bruhl, who will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink."
Cartoonist "Doonesbury" – Garry Trudeau – has written his obituary, which he sometimes quotes from at public appearances. "Feb 3, 2035 – former New York Knicks point guard Garry Trudeau died peacefully in his home today following a particularly fine meal and a visit from his great-grandchildren," he begins. "Mr Trudeau, who enjoyed an early modest success as a cartoonist, is best remembered for his abrupt career change when he appeared unannounced at a Knicks try-out camp."
Could obit selfies be the new, er, selfies? I can see it happening. Best get on with mine – as James Rebhorn tells his children, exhorting them to get on with their lives' work: "Time is flying by."