Just as the nature of the biography has changed in recent decades, so has that of the obituary. Yet while most people accept the shift from hagiography to pathography in the book world, there remains the notion that the obituary pages are there to hail the achievements of the recently deceased.
So when the British Medical Journal last month printed a highly critical obituary of physiologist David Horrobin, it was not surprising that it caused all sorts of commotion. Horrobin was a controversial figure. He argued that the gene that gives humans schizophrenia also gave them creativity and language. From madness stemmed our genius, so to speak. He also believed that certain fatty-acid compounds might cure not only modern schizophrenia, but depression, criminality, dyslexia and much else besides. He set up a company in Scotland to manufacture them.
For this, the BMJ called him “a rotter… given to avoiding his responsibilities.” The obituary, written by Caroline Richmond, described his research ethics as “dubious,” and concluded that he may prove to be “the greatest snake oil salesman of his age.” Such was the venom of the piece that the BMJ has been inundated with angry letters. Council members of the BMA have also logged complaints, while Horrobin’s family have asked the press complaints commission to condemn the piece. His widow, Sherri, told the Observer: “An obituary of a man is supposed to sum up his achievements, not trash him once he is dead and cannot defend himself.”
Such sentiments are understandable. We still feel uneasy about speaking ill of the dead. It can look cowardly and brutal. Yet the opposite approach can often be worse. To cast an approving blanket over a life can often be plainly dishonest. “We pointed out his good points but it is clear he was a bit of a chancer,” said Richard Smith, editor of the BMJ. “I think it was a good obituary. It marks a policy change for us. We want to get away from the standard hagiographical write-up.”
Several newspapers have been doing just the same for the last 20 years. Both the Daily Telegraph and the newly launched Independent claim the credit for making obits fashionable in the mid-1980s by encouraging writers to be more honest and, if necessary, brutal.
Consider some of the notices published under the Hugh Massingberd regime at the Telegraph. In 1988, the obituary of the former Labour minister John Stonehouse asserted: “To the end of his life he blamed everyone and everything but himself for a catalogue of crime and deception that destroyed his political career.” Two years later it described Seth Morgan as “a drug dealer and addict, strip-joint barker, pimp, armed robber and acclaimed novelist.” And in 1997, Daniel Farson “was a talented television journalist, writer and photographer; he was also a nightmare drunk.”
Obituaries like the latter still possess the capacity to shock. I remember an angry letter from a scientific body complaining of a Times obituary of the neurophysiologist John Lilly, printed in October 2001. Lilly was a brilliant man but, perhaps confirming Horrobin’s thesis, was also clearly bonkers. He devoted the bulk of his career trying to communicate with dolphins. Frustrated at his lack of progress, he administered LSD to the creatures and to himself. This didn’t work, so he went off to the US to raise awareness about the threat of aliens trying to brainwash humanity.
A far greater hoo-ha resulted from a 1998 Times obituary of Brian Masters, the Bishop of Edmonton. “Neither a scholar nor a particularly effective preacher,” it said, “the best that could be said for his sermons was that they tended to be short.” The piece solicited an unprecedented amount of complaints. It was denounced by the Bishop of London from the pulpit at the funeral in St Paul’s. The 2,500-strong congregation responded by bursting into spontaneous applause.
To date, the most frightening reaction I can recall was when the Times in January 2000 reprinted a passage of an old obituary of the Ayatollah Khomeini, recalling his “disastrous responsibility for inspiring and sanctioning state terrorism.” In response, we received many threatening phone calls. But the real villains have always got it in the teeth from the thunderer. Trotsky was “vain, energetic and ruthless,” Hitler was the “incarnation of absolute evil.” Even James Joyce felt the venom of the obituarist in 1941, who felt Ulysses was full of “many repellent or merely boring passages” and that the man himself was “self-opinionated and vain.” TS Eliot felt so affronted that he wrote to the Times, but the letter was never published.
What really galls readers is not so much professional criticism but personal abuse. This is perhaps why many feel the BMJ has overstepped the mark. Especially as there are more subtle ways of telling it as it is. My favourite is the New York Evening Post’s obituary of WB Yeats, from 1939: “He was a writer of shining prose, poetic Irish plays, elegant essays, and constructive criticism of Irish arts and letters. He was a nationalist patriot when that took courage… in 1928 he won the Nobel prize. Beyond that, he was a little daft.”