This past week, my grandfather passed away, and I’ve been asked to write a speech for his funeral. It is the strangest thing, this being asked to distill eighty-seven years into twenty minutes. What do you include? What do you say? Do you tell the story about grandpa as reluctant mouse-hunter (it ends badly)? Or the one where his hip went out at the lake and his friends decided to take him to the emergency room, boat and all? Do you talk about the distressed husband, at the bedside of his dying wife, realizing that there might have been a lost opportunity to express just how much he loved her?
Human lives are complicated things. When well lived, they encompasses moments of beauty, love, friendship, and happiness in addition to tragedy, lost opportunity, and regret. (And my grandfather’s life was well-live.) What’s more, we human beings are embodiments of paradox: a man may be both a great philanthropist and a brutal monopolist, who built his fortune upon the shattered careers of others. Or he may be a vicious murderer and anarchist who “loved sunflowers, eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars.” How do you capture all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the contemplative, the tragic, and the hilarious?
The only answer I have been able to find to that question was given by Neil Gaiman, while being interviewed by a reporter about someone still very much alive:
I spent half an hour yesterday talking to a reporter who was working on the obituary of someone who is currently very much alive, even in good health, and it was … well … very odd. I’d always known that obituaries aren’t just knocked up (or perhaps tossed off. Look, neither phrase sounds particularly wholesome) on the spur of the moment by some dusty, but hard working, obituarist whenever someone kicks the bucket, but they are written ahead of time, often rewritten many times over the years. The Daily Telegraphs are the best, I don’t why this is, but it’s true. Here is my favourite Telegraph obituary ever, because it contains:
Despite a brisk code of discipline, Singleton took a laissez faire approach out of the classroom. Every November 5, the smallest boy in the school was sent down a tunnel to light the very core of the bonfire. None, so far as anyone can recall, was ever lost.
Good obituaries (and by extension, eulogies), it appears, is much like any other sort of writing: a careful product of thought, time, review, and attention.
That is, perhaps, why they are such an art-form. Unlike other types of communication, they have to be composed in moments of pandemonium, distress, and chaos; at a time when it’s essential to find precisely the right words under conditions which make it all but impossible.
Manifestly unfair, if you want my opinion.