Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: The Art of the Obituary


Tombstones and mausoleums and their epitaphs summing up lives lived may serve as permanent markers of the dearly departed but obituaries serve as concrete public proof in novella form denoting that a person has lived and died, grim reminders of our own mortality, with evidence appearing daily of one’s departure or expiration. But obituaries are only as concise; witty; dry; culturally, politically, historically and medically accurate; and reflective of their subject as the writer who dissects and molds what we read and the publication in which they appear.
            The first recorded notices of one’s death first appeared in 1731 in The Gentleman’s Magazine, a London periodical, and included short biographies of the deceased. Obituaries from their beginnings to the present day were/are selectively culled from the masses, based on the whim of the writer, the editorial bent of the newspaper, or social status. They often appeared as brief as a line or two by anonymous writers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during the 18th and 19th centuries but longer if the subject was a prominent member of the community, or as three line novellas by Félix Fénéon in Paris’ daily newspaper, Le Matin, in 1906, to longer obituaries prevalent in the more modern day New York Times. As a contrast in styles, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted the passing of one of its citizens (and now former reader):
"5 November 1857: Fatal Result of an Accident.—Charles Gorzork the young man who was accidentally shot near Greenwood Cemetery on Friday by a companion with whom he was out gunning, died at the Hospital yesterday from the injuries then received."
            Felix Fénéon’s declarations of the dead notices are a bit more succinct, prosaic and leave more to the imagination of the reader:
"In Marseille, Sosio Merello, a Neapolitan, killed his wife. She did not wish to market her endowments."
The writer Luc Sante acknowledges Fénéon as a master of brevity with a singularly distinguishable style: Each item is a literary performance, just as each is nameless, evanescent, consumed in an instant and then used to wrap fish. Obituaries are as much a reflection of the deceased as they are of the writer. In The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, author Marilyn Johnson compiled offbeat prose reports of the dead, noting a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2005:
"Jeanette Schmid, the professional whistler who has died in Vienna aged 80, performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich; she had been born a man and fought in Hitler’s Wehrmach before undergoing a sex change in a Cairo clinic."
And for many, the publication of an obituary is part of the ritual of their death, just as a wedding notice might appear or the awarding of a prize significant to their field. The well known, renowned, notorious, and infamous are guaranteed obituaries by dint of their accomplishments. Johnson dissects the process, insisting that the subject of the obituary nets a more full report in the hands of a more mature, seasoned writer.
But writing the tales of the dead should not be left to the fainthearted or the young, she writes. "It’s a challenging section to edit, and never more so than when a famous person dies unexpectedly, like late in a three-day weekend, during a snowstorm, when there’s no advance obit in the bank, and the only available writer is too young to know much about the subject."
One of the more modern day literate writers of obituaries, Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of the New York Times attacked his subjects with dexterity, mirth and cleverness and compiled a legion of fans. In a book compiling Thomas, Jr.’s best obituaries, 52 McGs, Thomas Mallon writes in the forward:
"You read them first with your morning coffee, or the subway, or waiting for the computer to boot up—always while you were moving headlong into another day of busy and ordinary life.. .About Anne Hummert, the creator of over a dozen soap operas, he (Thomas, Jr.)  asked: “Can a career woman who sacrificed her leisure to keep a nation of enthralled housewives glued to their radios for the better part of two decades survive a heart-wrenching regimen of producing as many as 90 cliff-hanging episodes a week to live a full, rich and long life?” Beautifully alert to verbs—“Hal Lipset, a storied San Francisco sleuth who helped elevate, or rather reduce, electronic surveillance to a miniature art”—Thomas wrote as if he’s never heard of an exclamation point, let alone thought of using one. In his hands, irony was not the all-pervasive, self-congratulatory thing it is today."
How the writer of the obituary tackles the death of a subject can influence society’s attitude toward death. In an informal reading of New York Times obituaries, details such as the method or cause of death are now widely acknowledged: cancer and specifically, the type of cancer; suicide; tragic murder-suicide in the case of the elderly who want to take control over their deaths; this avoids the inevitable “what ever happened to. . .. ?” Michael Largo in his book, The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich and Powerful Really Died, notes that the art of the obituary has often changed to match the society’s attitude toward death.
            Obituaries today address the evils of death, whether someone died of excesses of alcohol or drugs, complications from AIDS, cancer, heart disease, obesity and suicide, following the openness of Americans to discuss beginnings and endings without shame.
Many readers of the New York Times turn to the obituaries first but these reports are sanitized versions of lives. They spare the details and minutiae of how the other half lives: they don’t reveal how many times a world famous fashion designer or renowned surgeon or Oscar-winning actress had to be tracked down by police with a flashlight as she wandered away from home, how many times he or she left the stove on, how many times he or she forgot her husband’s or wife’s name, and how many times he or she telephoned 911 when they were lonely.
Fame and accomplishments, in conjunction with readership and demographics and the obituary writer determine news of the dead. The middle and working class, unless they have achieved some sort of notoriety or have been killed in the commission of a crime where news accounts serve as their obituary. The New York Times is the holy grail of obits: unless one is a celebrity or a politician, famous author, actress or sports figure or a peg who fits squarely in the hole of pop culture, he or she will not be assured of a New York Times obituary.
            A highly accomplished plumber who fixes sinks, toilets, and bathtubs all over the city is unlikely to receive any acclaim in print. He is of little interest to the newspaper or media or to the writer unless he invented a contraption of note or ran for the public office, complete with scandal. But there’s a glimmer of hope offered of newsprint immortality, thanks to the New York Daily News, which now regularly publishes obituaries of the middle and working class next to illustrious counterparts from the rich and famous. The local reports are distinguished by personal details and lesser accomplishments. One example, from Saturday, July 2nd, 2011 noted that its subject, “frequently played video games, which he picked up from his grandchildren. His favorite game was “The Legend of Zelda.” Schoolteachers, office workers, electricians and other components of the foundation of the city share space with headliners, politicians, and celebrities but theirs are filled with such achievements as the enjoyment of taking walks and fixing cars.
The obituaries below, in the vein of the newspapers listed above, pay homage to all. And they, too, are only as entertaining, mundane and informative as the writer. A little fantasy, a little macabre but it was a life worth living.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

11 June 1885: Fatal Result from Apples.—A melancholy incident occurred on Pineapple Street near Court Street yesterday which involved the death of a 105 year old woman. Arlene Schulman, a local baker, was smothered by several bushels of apples in her apple orchard. A verdict of accidental death was rendered.

Le Matin - A la Félix Fénéon

A baker caught her husband entwined with a fruit vendor in her apple and pear orchard. She flung apples at the pair; all were bruised.

In her orchard, inflamed by her love of apples, which caught her eye, Mme. Schulman was befelled by bushels of apples and smothered. The doctor was kept away.

New York Daily News – Nothing Left for Dunkin’: Big Apple Loses One of Its Best Apples

Arlene Schulman, a baker, died on Tuesday. She was 105. Schulman was born in the Bronx and grew up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn and Medford, Long Island, and baked donuts for over 90 years.
She turned to baking apple cider donuts after marrying her fifth husband, who insisted that she become a housewife. Intent on growing the perfect apple, she converted the bedroom of their upper West Side apartment into an apple and pear orchard widely known around the world for its variety of species. Frequent guests to her home enjoyed apple cider, apple pie, apple cider donuts, and apple burgers.
In her free time, Schulman photographed her apples, reading and walking around New York City wearing a Big Apple pin and carrying a bag of donuts. She watched television on occasion, particularly enjoying reruns of Jeopardy and The Sopranos.
Her late husband, who died after being hit by an apple on their second anniversary, once called her “original, iconoclastic, eccentric but not crazy.” Her cat, Buster, survives her. Services were held simultaneously at Hunter College and at The New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The Kenny Funeral Home handled the arrangements.
New York Times – Arlene Schulman, Big Apple Baker, Dies at the Ripe Old Age of 105
Arlene Schulman, a noted gourmand of apples, died at her home at the age of 105. Her culinary preparation was legendary while she kept her recipe for apple cider donuts a secret not even Martha Stewart could coax out of her. She’d rather canoodle with a crabapple, as she often said, and her gluttonous tendencies towards baked goods with apples were enormous.
Her interest metamorphasized into unadulterated pleasure when biting into an apple one day at a fruit market. “Feh! I can do better,” she groaned. The Harvard Business School adopted her famous remark as a slogan. Her donuts were an amalgamation of apple cider, applesauce, apple baby food, and mashed apples all pureed into one elegant and snappy batter. The noted gastronome feted neighbors and celebrities with zip-lock bags filled with apple donuts sold under the label Arlene’s Big Apple. Former Mayor Ed Koch was known to consume at least six a day and St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s main spokesperson Joe Zwirling confirmed that just before last rites were performed, there were many requests for Schulman’s delectable, mouthwatering donuts.
An epicure with only one dish, she would seethe and smolder at critics who chafed at her solitary endeavor. “Getting one dish right is quite an accomplishment,” she said getting a little crisp around the edges in an interview with the Times in 2011.
Schulman was born in a tiny hamlet in the Bronx in 1976 and moved to Brooklyn when she was less than a year old. Her parents had no culinary backgrounds, although her father was a night manager of a frozen food company supplying prepared foods to the airlines, hospitals and schools. This shaped her taste buds as she refused to eat any foods that had been previously frozen. A graduate of Hunter College, she was so fond of her alma mater that a philanthropic gift of $5 million accompanied by seven-dozen apple donuts caused the college to name the West Building, “Arlene’s Big Apple Building” in her honor.
“I always say, an apple a day keeps the digestion moving”, she said, handing out apples. She continued to take classes at Hunter until the day before her death.
            Decidedly non-euphuistic, she took to growing her own apple and pear trees in her apartment, giving new meaning to growing your own. She was so successful that she hosted busloads of Japanese tourists, presidents of foreign countries and researchers from the New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. She cultivated a new species called the Arlene Crisps, which were considered culinary masterpieces for baking, snacking, cider and as substitutes for darts.
Schulman, decidedly noted for hating vegetables and the founder of the “Stop Canoodling with Carrots” campaign, is survived by her sixth husband, Kenny Katlowitz, a fellow baker, and a cat. Her orchard will be overseen by horticulturists and apple fanatics who will commemorate her life by eating an apple a day on August 13, which would have been her 106th birthday.
“How about them apples?” she used to say, biting into a Granny Smith.
Correction: Due to an editing error in earlier editions, Arlene Schulman was listed incorrectly listed as 110 when she died. She was actually 105.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Arlene Schulman’s sixth husband Kenny Katlowitz, does not survive her; he died after choking on a 12-inch apple in 2005.
Correction: Kenny Katlowitz was Arlene Schulman’s fifth husband.
Correction: Arlene Schulman had no cats.

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