The Economist Book of Obituaries

An obituary, or for that matter a book with a collection of obituaries, does not at first glance appear to be interesting reading. Unless you know someone who recently died, or curious as to who made or did not make the register, you probably just flipped past this section in the local newspaper. While major dailies In the United States may carry write-ups about prominent deaths in the community, the obituary is usually quite predictable; more like a notice with listing of family members who preceded the decease in death and those who are still surviving, along with the time and place of arrangements. The New York Times even have “Paid Death Notices” on the internet. Hardly interesting material, unless you happen to know somebody mentioned.

In England this is different. According to the authors, obituaries in Britain are “lively, literary and irreverent.” The reason? “… the clever and relatively young obituary editors … turned their obituary sections into some of the best read and most discussed pages of their respective newspapers.” This style, applies to the accounts of the persons selected for The Economist magazine. The compiling of life into 132 lines or around 1,000 words is truly a literary feat. That we know these people, or should have, makes the stories even more fascinating.

The Economist Book of Obituaries provides accounts of 199 people and one parrot [Alex the African Grey, science’s best know parrot who died at age 31]. How they were selected for the weekly magazine column is interesting; how they got into the book is even more mysterious. Spanning at least 12 years (“1994 to 2008” makes 14 years), or 624-plus obituaries, of which only 200 were chosen for the book . Although much is explained in the introduction and press release about how people can get their tale into the weekly report; nothing is shared about how this list was distilled down to only 200 characters, one of which is a parrot: “The candidates’ criteria …They must have led interesting and thought-provoking lives;” or as the internet said, “Our posthumous profiles range from the merely famous to the unexpectedly fascinating.”

Interesting and thought provoking lives the subjects did live. Of course you had to have some fame, or at least be known to the authors. Money also seemed to help and none seem to have died poor; maybe in jail, but not broke. The sketches cover people from paupers to princes, heroes to villains, and patriots to traitors. Many artists, a firefighter, poets, free-thinkers, musicians, scientists and a smattering of preachers and sinners are included. There is the longest living person [Jeanne Louise Calment, 122 (credits “olive oil and good French wine”); the world’s oldest man’s secret, Benito Martinez who reached 120: “never cheated a man or said bad things of other people”] and those who died young [Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, 21, a prisoner at Guantanamo who hung himself]. Several generals have their stories told and foot-soldiers too, who were notable for being “the last alive” [Lazare Ponticelli, 110, last French foot-soldier of the first world war]. Steven Irwin, the crocodile hunter, along with Bobby Riggs and Julia Child made it into the book; however, Mother Theresa did not make the cut, even though her obituary was published in the magazine.

The obituaries in the book are listed only alphabetically by name. There is no index , or other cross references. This makes a poor resource for research, since it is difficult for the reader to find individuals by dates of death, periods of life, accomplishments, fields of endeavor, or other distinguishing historical factors.

There is much to enjoy about the book. It’s difficult to call it a “page turner,” in the usually sense of a suspense novel, since each piece is exactly two pages long (with picture). However, upon finishing one life story, and flipping the page to see whose next, only to find your interest piqued by another great tale about a fascinating character, with only two more pages to read; makes it hard not to continue or to put down the book, creating a real page turner. A most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon reading about such people. Published in 2008, reviewed in 2009, the book consists of the lives of people born as early as 1875 and living throughout a hundred years of time. This is about the best format for the history of the past century that can be found. Here are found the chronicles of the passage of people who “have led interesting and thought-provoking lives ;” and actually made history.

The Economist Book of Obituaries

Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

416 pages, November 2008

Bloomberg Press, NY

Lionel A. Varnadoe, Jr. is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes books, articles, and reviews on a variety of topics and can be reached through NewsBlaze.