The Rambler :: blog

Friday, June 11, 2004

Notes for the morbid 

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This has been a rough few weeks for musicians, with a lot of big names making their final bows. As part of my job (go and find out for yourself what that is...!) I keep an eye out for musician obituaries in the papers. Through Bloglines, I found a great little newsfeed to help with this - Moreover produce a whole bunch of aggregated feeds from all over the place on different subjects, and after a bit of searching around on Bloglines I got hold of one on obituaries. The results of this get dumped into my del.icio.us obituaries feed, and then crop up periodically in the box on the left. The moreover feed is pretty good - particularly for the UK and US press, although there are the inevitable links to 'Donald Rumsfeld - a Political Obituary'-type of articles, and it's recently been hijacked by some adverts. The work side of things just means that I need to keep an eye out for any musicians who crop up, but it's fascinating watching the patterns of who gets obituaries, and how many, and where. And many of the newspapers have particular editorial practices for their obituary pages. The Independent for example is especially for good for musicians, of all disciplines, UK and international. The Chicago Tribune almost exclusively runs obituaries for local individuals: most of whom have led very normal, average lives, but have been granted commemoration in their city's paper.

One thing that you do feel when reading across all the papers is a curious measure of an individual's importance, according to the number of obituaries they receive around the world. Obviously Reagan has dominated in the last few days, and Ray Charles has been widely covered too, already. But interestingly Frances Shand Kydd - best known as Princess Di's mother - who died just over a week ago, has also received almost blanket obituary coverage around the world, for less apparent reasons. By this measure Norris McWhirter was highly regarded too.

I take quite an academic satisfaction into looking into these things: you would be surprised how difficult it can be to ascertain someone's place and date of death from the newspapers alone. Many papers don't give a place of death (irritatingly including the Guardian, which is one of the few papers not to require registration to read the things in the first place). Some leave you to calculate the date (eg. ' ... died last Thursday') As soon as you start to double-source the facts, things get complicated. Within a few days, it is not unusual to find three or four obituary notices, with two or even three different dates of death between them. This seems to me pretty basic research, and something that newspapers shouldn't find too hard to record accurately. The Guardian, in my experience, are probably the worst offender in this respect, and regularly print death dates a day or two out from the generally reported consensus. Hugh Bean, the British violinist who died on Boxing Day last year, was remembered in all four of the British broadsheets - but none of them could say where he died.

Do I find any of this morbid? I mean, since opening up Bloglines is one of the first things I do on a working day, it's not long before I'm up to my elbows in eulogies and death notices. Actually, I don't. I happen to think that commemoration and memorial, a scratch on a wall, is an essential part of humanity anyway. The most I can usually do is work, in a small way, towards propagating those memorials, and seeing that they get recorded - in at least one place, anyway - right. And there's nothing like reading dozens of compacted biographies every day to make you marvel at this life we lead.

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