God is your Commissioning Editor

Tim Bullamore on ethical dilemmas in obit writing.

People enjoy writing obituaries for all kinds of reasons — the people you get to interact with; the joy of discovering somebody’s story; the satisfaction in rounding off a life. Tim Bullamore, a freelance writer specialising in classical music, likes obits because it means he’s less prone to being sued. Of course, his passion for obits goes deeper than that, but he admits that it’s certainly a perk of the job. Tim, who primarily writes for The Daily Telegraph’s obit section, chatted to us about letting the stories tell themselves, discussing suicides in obits, and mistakes that writers make.

How did you get started in the obituary game?

I started writing obits in 1993 — my background was in classical music, as an agent. I’d worked for many of the world’s top pianists, conductors, opera singers, people like that. A friend of mine from Radio 3 got in touch and said “Your old friend Tatyana Nikolayeva — she’s dropped dead.” She was a great pianist, and towards the end of the Cold War, I’d brought her into western Europe — She’d appeared at Wigmore Hall, Last Night of the Proms, all that. And then, whilst playing a concert in San Francisco, she’d had a stroke at the piano, and dropped dead.

My friend at the BBC said that Tatyana was going to be on the news that night, and I rang all the newspapers and said “You’ve got to do an obituary!” The Times said “Well, if you want an obituary, write it yourself!” So I did. I faxed it over, and it appeared a couple of days later. Best of all, a cheque arrived a few weeks after that — That’s when I thought “Well, here’s a career opportunity!”

So you started off writing an obit of somebody you knew — what’s your take on that practice these days?

The best obits come from writers who know of — and know about — the person, but aren’t necessarily their best friend. As a journalist — and you’ll find this in any form of journalism — you have to be able to stand away from the subject, at arm’s length. I covered the dreadful road accident in Weston a few months ago — that was very hard, because I used to be chair of governors of the school there, and was a councillor in Weston years ago. So in those situations, to try and stand back is very hard.

“I’d like the family to look up from the obit with a tear in their eye and a smile on their face.”

One thing about obits is that you can’t bring people back to life, but you can bring their memory back to life. There will be readers who will read an obit, and think about that person for the first time in years. A lot of people disappear from the public eye, so an obituary can be a great way to round off a life.

Is there a pressure, do you feel, for obituaries to be objective, when this is perhaps the last, definitive thing written about a life?

There should be pressure on all journalists to be even-handed and objective. That said, anything and everything is subjective. One of the joys of a plural press — we have four major obituary pages in this country: Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent — is that you can get four very different obituaries. But you go to the States, for example, and they’ll all take the Associated Press’ wire copy and print the same thing. And as such, every small town in America’s obituary of, say, Ronald Reagan, was the same. Really, you should have had a good right-wing press saying how wonderful he was, and a good left-wing press that says what a tyrant he was — the readers should be left to make their own mind up.

With The Telegraph, it’s no secret that it’s more Conservative-leaning than other papers, and so some of our obituary subjects lean that way too — people we think our readers want to read. On the other hand, I do like to challenge the readers: I write about musicians after all, and musicians are artists — artists, by definition, are often a bit subversive and liberal.

Now, at The Telegraph, the obituaries are all published anonymously — What’s your take on that practice?

The Telegraph & Times are anonymous, The Guardian & Independent are bylined. There are arguments for both — the ego in me would love to have a byline, but at the same time, a bit of me is quite relieved, because not having one means you don’t get people contacting you directly to quibble about little things.

What’s your reaction to when a great story lands on your desk?

There are two feelings going on at the same time — One is “Wow, I’m in awe!” and the other is “Gosh, what a great story — I want to be first with this!” Well, not only first — I want to be the best and the most accurate.

All you can do, in those situations, is just tell the story simply. Superlatives — “the bravest”, “the most amazing” — become meaningless. By and large, if the obit’s worth doing, the story will tell itself.

In many ways, getting a great story is simply luck. God is your commissioning editor — He or She decides who you’re going to write about that day.

Do you ever encounter ethical dilemmas when writing obits? What, say, if somebody simply doesn’t want to be remembered?

Obituaries are not an honour. They’re not an OBE, or a knighthood. They are a record of lives who have changed our society — and this is the important bit — for better or for worse. It’s very easy to forget that. For example, I was working at The Times not long after 9/11, and in November of that year, American forces shot and killed Mohammed Atef, the mastermind behind 9/11. Bin Laden (if he ever existed) might have told them to do it, but Atef handled the details — strategic planning, making sure people were in the right place — it was a big logistical operation. So his obit went to the paper on the same day as those of a brigadier, a former colleague of mine at The Times, and Charlotte Coleman. The uproar this caused was wonderful — all these people writing in, saying “How dare you give this scumbag, who helped kill 3,000 people in New York, an obituary? It should be going to brave heroes, like the brigadier at the top!” We wrote back, explaining that this guy changed the world, whether we like it or not. We gave Hitler an obituary, we gave Ceausescu an obituary, and, when the time comes, we’ll give Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi obituaries. And we did.

As for other ethical issues — there are a lot of them. You can’t libel the dead, but you can libel their families. So you can say he was a crook, but if you say he was from a family of crooks, and that family’s still alive, you’ve libelled them. But in terms of the person themselves, all claims of libel die with the body. Which is a great reason to write obits — they can’t sue you!

Suicide’s a tricky one too — it’s well known that if you report details of a suicide, you often get copycats. And you’ll often get clusters — Bridgend had one a few years ago: 20 or 30 suicides, all performed in the same way, in a matter of weeks — awful, awful stuff. There are guidelines on how to cover suicides — the things you can and can’t say in an obit. As we know, obituaries aren’t really about death, they’re about life, but if a 30-year-old dies, it does beg the question “Why the hell did they die?” So there are phrases you can use like “It came as a surprise to friends that he chose to end his life” — you don’t need to give out the method. The more information you give, the more people copy. That’s not to say you have to sanitise it, but if you can make it harder for people to do the same, you might save a life.

What, for you, is the ultimate goal of an obituary? What is it that what you want the reader to leave the obit feeling?

“I wish I’d known that person.” That’s what I want the reader to say. And I’d like the family to look up from the obit with a tear in their eye and a smile on their face.

And what would you say are the biggest mistakes writers make when writing obituaries?

So many obits give this perfect trajectory of a life — born with a silver spoon in their mouth, Eton, Oxbridge, the City, married, two kids, retired, chairman of the local council, died — oh for God’s sake! Nobody’s life is like that! Every life has a lot of ups, and a lot of downs. Didn’t this bloke ever have a broken heart? Didn’t he ever get three points on his license? Didn’t he ever get fired from a company? Didn’t he fail at least one O-Level? C’mon, nobody’s life is that perfect. Telling somebody’s story as that perfect trajectory is belittling that life — you have to tell the whole story.

Finally: How would you like your own obituary to read?

Honestly, I don’t care. What I want, though, is a blazing great row over whether they should even give me one or not. ◈