A Space to Think, A Space to Grieve
Bob Chaundy on catharsis within obituaries.
Former head of the BBC News Profiles Unit, author of Little Black Trains, and serial marathon runner, Bedford-based Bob Chaundy is a man not content to sit still in life. The obituary though, he says, is a space for exactly that — a space to sit still and reflect upon a life. We chatted to Bob about the personal effects stories can have, advance obituaries, and skills that obit writers need.
You’ve worked extensively with obits for both broadcast and print — What are the major differences between them, would you say? And is there one you prefer?
There are positives to both really. The main differences are that, first of all, a broadcast obit will have to go out on the day the death is announced, whereas in a newspaper, it would be the next day, or even up to several weeks later, depending on how important or well-known the subject is. And that can affect the tone of the obituary — on the day someone died, you tend not to speak so negatively of them, but a few days removed from the death, you can be more critical, I feel.
Broadcast obits will also, on average, be only about two minutes long — you don’t have time for appraisal or anecdotes, which are the hallmarks of written obituaries. You have to tell the story of a life as economically as possible — really distil it to its essence.
In TV, you’re also guided to a large extent by what footage you have available. For example, J.D. Salinger — who wrote Catcher in the Rye — was something of a recluse, and there’s no footage of him. So there was just no point in us doing a normal obit — his death was marked by a written statement. Similarly, the mime artist Marcel Marceau proved quite a challenge for radio!
And when it comes to advance obituaries, how do you decide whose to write? For example, we all know that there are advance obits for all of the royal family, but would that include, say, Prince George?
Prince George, possibly not — But I’ve done Beatrice and Eugenie. That was one of the toughest things about that job — I tended not to do them as complete obits, I’d just have what we called a kit of parts ready to go, in case we needed it. You just have to know where the pictures are, and know that you can get them very quickly.
We were expected to have those, but in practice, royal family members don’t die very often. One of my successes, actually, was that I had updated Diana’s obituary a few weeks before she died so that ran as was: Peter Sissons presented the program that day, and he said it was a marvellous obit, because it was 10 minutes, meaning he could go off and have a piss!
Are there any obituaries you’ve written/commissioned that you now wish you hadn’t?
I don’t think so. There were a couple of people whose obits I did — I’m thinking particularly of Robert Maxwell and Jimmy Savile — which would have been very, very different had we known what we know now. It was only after Maxwell’s death that we discovered he’d stolen from the pension funds at the Mirror. And, well, Jimmy Savile speaks for itself. Looking back on those obits, you just wish you’d known what you do now.
“One has to think, well, what would be in your obit? Perhaps you should do those things you’ve been putting off — something worth writing about.”
You’ve written a humorous novel, Little Black Trains, about obituary writers — How did you go about making the topic of obits not just entertaining, but funny?
I find many obits funny — I’ve written ones myself which are full of humour. The important thing is that obits are not written for the family or the friends, they’re written for the newspaper readers or the TV viewers — and in my book, one of them takes that rather to an extreme: he doesn’t care what the family think, he just wants to put the truth in. The other one takes much more care not to upset the family. So I sort of play with contrasting them in the book, and one of them gets into all sorts of trouble: getting involved in murders and all kinds of things. So there’s a lot of fun to be had with obituaries. Death isn’t funny, but don’t forget that obits are about people’s lives, not their deaths.
And where do you yourself fall on that spectrum of truth vs. compassion for the families?
I think it depends on the circumstances — families can be messy, y’know? I did an obit of somebody a few years ago, and he ended up having a mistress, and two children by this mistress. When I called the wife, she didn’t want any mention made of the mistress and the two kids. I felt this was terribly unfair on the mistress and the kids — you can’t airbrush things out of history. The wife made all sorts of threats, but I had to go ahead and tell the truth. It can certainly be tricky sometimes though.
Are there other skills needed to be a great obituarist, in your opinion?
I think it helps enormously if you can engage well with the family and friends — they really will try harder to come up with anecdotes, or give you more information. And the more you get, the better the picture you get of the subject is.
You obviously just have to have a passion for it. A passion for finding out about people’s lives, and trying to create a three-dimensional figure — which will include faults as well as good points. If somebody has a particularly bad temper, it’s worth recording. It just makes them more human. I always try and determine the distinguishing features of them too — if they had a particular cigarette they smoked, or a drink they drank. Or if they had a physical characteristic which stands out — a stammer, say, or a lisp — I always seek those out, because people can recognise and latch onto those when they’re reading it.
To what extent have the obituaries you’ve written had a particular personal effect upon you?
Well, there are two answers to that question — I find a lot of obituaries I write are of people whom I find quite inspiring, but also who have inspired a lot of people. Talking to those people, and hearing them talk about this person’s drive, their enthusiasm, the way they related to their staff, their friends, whatever — it can be quite moving, actually. It makes you think, well, y’know, this is what I would like to be like.
And when you hear about their successes, and the way they’ve achieved whatever it was that qualified them for an obit in the first place, one has to think, well, what would be in your obit? Perhaps you should do those things that you’ve been putting off — try and achieve something worth writing about.
I’ve also written several obits of people I’ve known — colleagues — and that’s an interesting thing to do. I’ve found it can be quite therapeutic in a way — just as the family members of people I ring up when compiling a written obituary find it very therapeutic, by and large, to talk about their loved one. It gives them a space to think about them, in a way — a space to grieve.
Whether in life or in work, how would you define success?
Success in life, I think, is relating well to your family, to your friends — just being a good person. Being inspiring, if you like — those are not necessary qualities that make a good obituary, though, and I think that’s worth noting — when you’re trying to entertain a reader, those qualities that I just mentioned might be the best qualities to have, but they don’t always make for the best stories.
And do you feel successful?
Um, I think I did a pretty good job when I was the obits editor at the BBC, and I’m quite proud of many of the obits I’ve written. So yeah, in that respect, I think I’ve been successful. As for in life, well, we can always do better, can’t we? I haven’t become a crack cocaine addict, and I’ve never been to prison, so that must be a plus!
And finally: How would you like your own obituary to read? What do want the headline to be?
“64-Year-Old Breaks World Marathon Record” [laughs]
Seriously? Oh gosh, I don’t know… Well, I suppose obituaries tend to be about one’s career, so I suppose the headline would be “Man Who Marked People’s Deaths for So Many Years Has Died” — I suppose that would be it. In terms of my qualities — well, I’ll leave that for other people to judge… ◈