November 16, 2011



I love the New York Times. Just a few years ago when the paper’s future was seriously in question I said to a friend “I couldn’t live without the NY Times.” She mistook my passion for melodrama. To my sustainably inclined husband’s chagrin I insist that we receive the print version daily. My computer’s opening page is Okay, I’m a junkie.

Regardless if I die of natural causes, or because of grief for the now unlikely passing of the paper, the NY Times wouldn’t cover my death. Well, maybe when my book finds a publisher, and we break new ground in death consciousness. Well, maybe, but only if they review the book or interview me. A retired New York Times obituary writer informed me that there is very little chance of having your obit appear in the publication, if they didn’t cover you in life.

This editorial protocol is felt deeply in the obituary coverage at the paper. Of the 36 New York Times obituaries featured on 11.15.11, only 10, just over 25%, are not white men. The discriminatory practices of the obituary coverage was covered last year in the blog The NYTimesPicker, which quoted the editor Bill McDonald as saying that the obits reflect the coverage of the paper years ago when coverage of non-white, non male was slim. No apologies are made. No attempt to correct the history of journalistic error. The prejudice persists, even If a woman or non-Caucasian of notable accomplishments dies today. For reasons of past oversight, these individuals and the populations they represent are omitted.

And even when they are covered, the coverage is inconsistent. Recently, two Nobel Laureates died within in a week of each other. One was a black African Woman the other a white American man. The coverage of their passing was wildly divergent. Wangari Matthai’s obit included a recounting of her divorce:

“Home life was not easy, either. Her husband, Mwangi, divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman, by her account. When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge, she was thrown in jail.”

Ralph M. Steinman died a week later with no mention of his personal back-story and there was a big one. Three days after his death he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The NewYork Times covered this fact but neglected to include this personal back-story as was reported in The Telegraph.

“’We wanted him to be here for this,’ said his daughter Alexis Steinman, 34. ‘We were like ‘OK Dad, I know things aren’t going well but the Nobel, they are going to announce it next Monday’. And he’s like: ‘I know I have got to hold out for that. They don’t give it to you if you have passed away. I got to hold out for that.'”

It is incomprehensible to me why Matthai’s obituary includes highly personal content, while Steinman’s does not. Prejudice, unconscious racism or sexism, may be at play. Perhaps it is a recycling of old news. Regardless of intent, the ‘story’ is missed. Obituary is not a death notice, it is a form of biography. And without the personal ironies, without the poignancy, there simply is no story.

Why does it matter? It matters because we expect obituaries to tell our story. I once thought reading them a morbid practice. Now, I read them not only to be informed of a life, but to inform my life. To read of accomplishment void of failure, disappointment, irony, and personal challenge doesn’t serve.

Interestingly every obituary of Steve Jobs includes reference to his ’failures’ and in doing so, we feel him deeply. It may be true as Mona Simpson eulogized in her New York Times piece of her brother’s death:

“We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.”

We want our stories to be told, finished or not, perfect or not. We care how we will be remembered. We want eulogies like Simpson’s that go beyond praise. We want obituaries that more fully document our journey. We are junkies for own narrative.

Alfred Nobel’s own personal story exemplifies the craving to leave a legacy. After his brother’s death a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary, condemning his invention of dynamite. Concerned that he not be remembered this way, he created the Nobel Prizes, and produced a legacy, another kind of explosion for the world.

Do we need to read our own obituary to see our story? Whether we got it wrong, or the journalist got it wrong, there is still time to edit.
No sin in that.

Comments (2)

  1. December 7, 2011
    My Own Eulogy said...

    We feel it is important to leave a message to loved ones before we die and have created this site to encourage people to tell their life story in their own words. Think of it as “Life after death”

  2. December 13, 2011
    Rodney Engleman said...

    Jobs was an incredible human along with the world will miss him a lot.

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