Modern obituaries put truth before praise

Tim Bullamore: obituaries should be “warts and all” portraits

No longer just grim notifications of death, obituaries have become colourful features in newspapers around the world.

Visiting British editor and writer Tim Bullamore (pictured) spoke this week of the evolution of obituaries in a lecture aptly titled “Obituaries to die for”.

A classical music agent turned expert obituary writer, Mr Bullamore has written for a variety of major British newspapers including The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

Many of his obituaries are syndicated in the English-speaking world, including Australia.

Speaking to Jschool college students and media guests, Mr Bullamore explained the concept of what he called the “postmodern obituary”.

An obituary should not just detail the good parts of a person’s life, but give a colourful account of how things “really were”, Mr Bullamore said.

The Jane Austen aficionado (he publishes a magazine dedicated to her life and times) described the “postmodern obituary” as: “A first and often imperfect posthumous biography.”

Obituaries now present an interesting, “warts and all” portrait, offering a reflection of how the person was viewed at the time of their death, he said.

The focus has shifted from class, education and professional accolades, to an assessment of achievements during a life of peaks and troughs.

Family stories and anecdotes might dominate a postmodern obituary, with only minor emphasis placed on the person’s upbringing.

Mr Bullamore explained that obituaries have evolved not only in their content, but in their subject matter.

Gone are the days that only upper-class, dominant male figures were mentioned in the obituary pages – Saddam Hussein had an obituary.

For Tim Bullamore, obituary writing is about seeking out minor details to provoke an emotional response from the reader.

He spoke of an obituary he wrote for classical pianist Natalia Karp who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II.

He was able to track down the number the Nazis tattooed on her arm as a Jewish prisoner.

Mr Bullamore said the sub-editor who worked on his piece had red cheeks and tears in his eyes after reading the obituary.

Obituaries were no longer just a notification of death, but the honest account of a life, he said – for better or worse.

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