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A Cabinet of Curiosities


Sam Litzinger says:


"Shall we Danse Macabre, my dear?"

I'm a big fan of obituaries.

That doesn't mean I'm morbid by nature (although I certainly can be at times); rather, a nicely written obituary can sum up an interesting life and, I think, even count as a good piece of literature as well as being a good piece of journalism. When I was studying philosophy several years ago, I was planning to do my Ph.D. thesis on philosophical approaches to death because I think the way we deal with our own inevitable demise reveals what kind of people we are fundamentally. We might decide to follow the teachings of a particular religion, cultural tradition, or, like Bertrand Russell, we may decide that
 "... when I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego shall survive", but he thought we could somehow be happy in this life anyway (he seemed pretty happy for a pacifist-atheist-skeptical-non-monogamous-philosophical-mathematical-Nobel Prize-winning genius!)

 Or we may, as I suspect most of us do, just ignore our impending death until it catches up with us and we try to use the last few seconds of consciousness to figure out what the heck life was all about.

Alas, I was talked out of my death-related thesis by philosophers who didn't think it wasn't philosophically interesting. Instead, I started and then abandoned a dissertation on rational action, but maybe one of these days I'll go back to the original idea (although I'd better hurry because I'm getting old fast and Death may have other plans for me!)

Anyway, I think great obit writers (The Washington Post has a plethora of them, led by the sometimes amused -- maybe even bemused -- but always sympathetic Adam Bernstein) are both great reporters (get one tiny fact wrong in an obituary and you'll hear about it from every single member of the dead person's family) and great writers. I recommend as an introduction to the art of writing about dead people a book by Marilyn Johnson titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Pleasures of Obituaries. I had the chance to interview her and really enjoyed myself, which may sound strange, but she shares my view that everyone deserves a well-crafted obituary and that the sometimes odd facts of a life are what make it special.

I'd also suggest the obituary columns of The Guardian, The Independent and The Times  -- British newspapers that seem to take great pride in giving people a swell sendoff.

After reading a wonderful obit -- for example, one on the amazing performer Melvin Burkhart (known as "The Human Blockhead" for his ability to hammer a steel spike up his nose) -- you say to yourself, "I wish I'd met that person!"

Melvin Burkhart, "The Human Blockhead"

An obituary, when done well, can make someone immortal.

Art Buchwald in Paris
 (with admiring women looking on, which he must have loved!)

I guess I did one of the last interviews with Art Buchwald, the wonderful humorist and so-so tennis player. He broke my heart in the most pleasant way, by which I mean we both knew he was dying, but he refused to be crushed by that fact. He remained interested, engaged, appreciative, optimistic and funny until the very end. It was a chat I'll always remember and I hope I can be as brave as Art when my time comes.

AUDIO: Art Buchwald on friends  

Here are some links to obituaries I particularly like:

Jim Marshall, rock photographer

Alex Chilton, iconoclast and musician

Irving R. Levine, broadcast journalist

Studs Terkel, sympathetic listener

Jimmy Carl Black, "the Indian of the group"

Laurence Urdang, word lover

Alexander Courage, composer of the "Star Trek" theme

Utah Phillips, folksinger and tramp

Earle Hagen, composer of "The Andy Griffith Show" theme

Will Elder, "MAD" man

Josephine Czapp, pet lover

Mary Burns, White House switchboard operator

Arthur C. Clarke, visionary

Maila Nurmi, Vampira

Bobby Fischer, chess master

Richard Knerr, funster

Frances Lewine, journalist

Hugh Massingberd, obituary writer (this is a classic British obit)

Oscar Peterson, piano master

Lydia Mendoza, Tejano trailblazer

Ian R. Bartky, chemist and time expert

Ike Turner, musician

Ann Darr, WW II aviator and poet

Silvio Bedini, collector and scholar

Emma Humphrey, cafeteria manager and jig-dancing yodeler

Mel Tolkin, lead writer for "Your Show of Shows"

Robert Cade, Gatorade creator

Paul Roche, Bloomsbury group poet

Rufus Johnson, lawyer and Lieutenant Colonel

Bent Skovmand, plant scientist

Herman Brix, Olympian and actor

Hilton Felton, Jr., jazz pianist

Abe Coleman, pro wrestler

Charlotte Winters, WW I vet

Chase Nielsen, Doolittle Raider

And here's a link to an obituary of George Melly, a British entertainer who was one of the last of his kind:

George Melly, personality

I had the chance to interview George a few years ago at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London where he was performing. We met in the bar and he proceeded to tell me wonderful, funny, often ribald stories for a solid hour. He talked about his devotion to the music of blues icon Bessie Smith and how he thought she was just the greatest thing ever. "Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer", he said, quoting one of her tunes. "What could be better?"
 Wherever you are, George, "Bon appetit!"
We'll get the check.

Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan has an online course on death which I'm enjoying very much. Check it out here.
I think it should be a rule that anyone who teaches about death must, like Shelly, do so while wearing Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers!

Finally, you fans of life afer death may wish to share your thoughts on The Washington Post's obits blog:

Tips on how to dress for the afterlife, what documents to bring along, interesting topics for post-life cocktail parties, etc. would be welcome, I'm sure, as would any messages from Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle or Madame Blavatsky.