What's an Obituary For?

Obits are morality tales -- and their stories must change with the times.
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President Obama presents the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Yvonne Brill during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2011. (AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The controversy started, as it so often does, with beef stroganoff.

Last week, Yvonne Brill -- a pioneering rocket scientist best known for her work developing the technologies that help keep our satellites in orbit -- passed away. And she was, unsurprisingly, given an obituary in The New York Times. The first line of that obituary, though, was a little less unsurprising. Because it originally read like this: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

Stroganoffed

Oof -- the husband-follower and kid-haver and meat-cooker, who was also a rocket scientist! This was bad for several reasons, which was why the Times has since updated its wording. There's the gender issue, first of all: the fact that it's nearly impossible to imagine a male scientist of Brill's standing getting stroganoffed in this way. ("Oh yes, by the way, Number One Mom Yvonne Brill, Preparer of Divine Beef Stroganoff, Cleaner of Messy Diapers, also invented a little system that helped make satellites work," Jezebel had it, while io9 called the meaty lede "spectacularly awful.") Even Marie Curie's Times obituary, written in 1934, had the good sense not to mention Pierre until its eighth paragraph. 

But there's also the structural issue. The first sentence of an obituary, in particular, is not only prime memorial real estate, but also coded real estate -- a sentence-long summation of somebody's broad impact on society. Which means that taking liberties with it is a fraught business, particularly when those liberties involve cheeky references to stewed beef. The obit's author, Doug Martin, was probably trying to be creative with his work, to paint a nuanced portrait of his subject, to use her professional accomplishments as an entry point into a more broadly accomplished life. The piece was, in its first sentence, presenting stereotypes only to obliterate them -- just like, yes, Brill did. It was humanizing the rocket scientist by situating her achievements within the context of their particular moment.

Here's the problem, though: Obituaries -- as a form, and a formula -- don't exist to humanize. They don't even, really, exist to contextualize. They exist to do the opposite of all that: to aggrandize. To idealize. To strip people of their circumstantial banalities and elevate them to the status of models and standards and heroes -- figures who transcend their own ordinariness. Not everybody, after all, gets an obituary in the paper of record; much of the point of the paper's heavily curated obit section is that very few, only the most exceptional of the great swath of humanity that dies every day, are deemed worthy of the honor. Brill was decided, by editors, to be obit-worthy, which is to say worth knowing about and worth elevating and worth remembering. Not by her family or friends, of course, who will remember and miss her without the Times's help -- but by the rest of us.

Obituary as Morality Tale

Obituaries are fundamentally different from other kinds of journalism. They are not, strictly speaking, profiles. They are not news stories. They don't necessarily aspire to be comprehensive -- which is, when the "story" is somebody's life, impossible. They don't necessarily aspire to be balanced -- which is, when the subject is a recently deceased person, insensitive. Obituaries in papers of record function instead like monumental Mad Libs. Their fill-in-the-blanks rigidity is, to an extent, their point.

And obituaries reflect their times. During the Civil War, when people needed to find meaning in their losses, obits of soldiers took on a religious and elegiac tone. In the 1880s, as newspapers doubled as entertainment, and as medical knowledge sprang to new levels, "death journalism" -- featuring gory descriptions of the deceased's final moments -- became the fad. The 20th century, particularly during the Progressive Era, saw the rise of "common man" obituaries that celebrated the folksy ordinariness of their subjects. As Dominic Tierney put it, "No obituary is an island, entire of itself. They are all pieces of the continent, a part of the main."

Nowadays, in place of obits that celebrate the "common man," we have obits that celebrate the uncommon one. And the extraordinariness is defined, in most cases, by professional success. Take the obit's typical headline -- "[Name], [Noteworthy Profession/Accomplishment], Dies at [Age]." The formula is loaded: We are reading about [Name], the obit's writer assures us, not because [Name] was kind or funny or interesting or a mean maker of noodles-and-meatsauce; we're reading about them because they somehow meant something extraordinary -- in the most literal sense of the word -- to the rest of us. They invented something. They changed something. They did [Noteworthy Profession/Accomplishment], and thereby put a dent in the universe.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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