Life as an obituarist

One of my favorite movies is Closer (2004), a story of 4 strangers in London and about their super-complicated relationships.  I’ll confess I don’t know what it’s really about – a difficult movie to completely decipher but it is extremely engaging. And it has the most amazing dialogues & performances by all 4 leads. The thing about Closer which strikes & stays is the interesting professions which the characters have – a photographer, a nightclub dancer, a dermatologist (“How was the conference?” “Well as far as dermatological conferences go, it was a riot”) and an obituarist.

After Nelson Mandela’s passing a few days ago, this suddenly came to mind. Allow me to elaborate.

We live in a era where the weekly obituary column as was probably common some time ago is more than a luxury. An obituary the next day is a luxury. We live in the age of instantaneous information.

Social media (& social networks as well – I guess we can’t really separate the two anymore ) is ephemeral in our lives today, something like the ether which was supposed to always be around us. Anyways, I recall sleeping rather late the previous night thanks to the cricket. My social media platforms (not news, we can’t call it news) were preoccupied with dissecting India’s capitulation to the Proteas in Johannesburg and pulling down the same guys who’d been pushed on to a pedestal a couple of weeks ago. The next morning I was traveling by an early morning flight & on my way to the airport I once again stepped into the social media ether. Could not have been more than 4 hours – but the cricket match seemed a long time ago (read: lots of scrolling below). Tributes to Nelson Mandela had taken over – most of them from my generation for whom he was a significant and important political figure, but surely not one who has impacted our lives for us to RIPing him as if we couldn’t imagine a world without him. Anyways, that’s a rant for another day). Long story short, it took less than a few hours for newspapers, websites, journalists and everyone whose opinion needs to be known to have something put up about Mr. Mandela.

It’s one thing to express a few thoughts in a tweet. It’s another to dig up some old articles which are relevant. But writing full length articles about anyone have to be a time consuming task. Surely, a large number of those obituaries had been written a while ago, and with a few tweaks for context.

And I was reminded of Jude Law’s character in the movie. How exactly would one function if you’re an obituarist? I’m sure they must be doubling up in other roles as well in their lives as journalists but let’s make the reasonable assumption that this is a major KRA. Obviously there would be the unexpected deaths – the Paul Walker’s and the Jiah Khan’s  – ones for which you need to stay up all night researching & get them through by the deadline. You can’t plan for them, so forget that 20%. But what about the remaining 80%? How do you ensure the obituaries you write are better than the obituaries the competition writes?

I’m guessing you start off by making a list of old & famous people who matter in your society – the who’s who. Then you look up their health records and sort them from bad to good. Then start researching their lives one by one and get basic structures in place. Maybe even write a few obituaries. Monitor their health (set up an RSS feed for each personality perhaps?)– the moment someone’s health takes a turn for the worse, you go and start putting your finishing touches to their obituary.

The depressing thought which arises is – as part of your job are you inevitably, subconsciously also led to hope that the people for whom you do have obituaries ready pass away during your tenure in this role? (These are in all probability the oldest guys in your list remember). Because if you have a role-change & move into the business or sports news section – all your preparation is of no use.

It’s not a nice place to be in, not a nice thing to be hoping for. It probably is a much tougher job than one may imagine it to be.

For a few moments I was wondering – what kind of a person I am for thinking in such a clinical manner? Maybe most journalists/obituarists don’t? But I’m sure Mandela’s illness earlier this year was the reason why so many of his obituaries hit the press at such a short notice.


Apart from a being a champion of human rights & democracy, Facebook has also taught me that Nelson Mandela was quite the quoter of quotable quotes in his lifetime. The best thing I’ve read about the great man in the last couple of days actually however comes from the Rev. Desmond Tutu.

‘People say, look what he achieved in his years in government – what a waste those 27 years in prison were………The time in jail was quite crucial. Of course, suffering embitters some people, but it ennobles others. People could never say to him: “You talk glibly of forgiveness. You haven’t suffered. What do you know?” Twenty-seven years gave him the authority to say, let us try to forgive’

I’m sure we can take away something from that in each of our lives the next time we want to complain about the injustices we face.