Conrad Black and the art of the obituary

I have Conrad Black and Sue Vohanka to thank for my renewed interest in the craft of writing obituaries. Here’s why.

With Sue, it’s because last month she handed a copy of Canada From Afar: The Daily Telegraph Book of Canadian Obituaries. Sue is a great, long time friend. We used to shake marinis together in the Ontario bush.

She retrieved the book from her car just as we were about to stroll across the 50 meter high Lynn Canyon suspension bridge, in North Vancouver. She gave it me, I thanked her, and then forgot about the book until this afternoon. It had slid behind my bed and I pecked it free an hour ago while napping. And now onto Conrad Black.

Sue: dear old friend. Conrad: infamy and ridicule. I think about his stealth caught on camera in the alleyway behind his 1 Toronto Street office, in-the-dead-of-the-night carting off evidence that would later claim him. My partner’s office building overlooks this site. Once, while picking her up after work, she pointed it out; it came back to me in a flash, with all its spectacular hush.

Before the troubles, when Conrad was a lowly media baron Lord, he wrote the foreward to this book, unfettered praise of Canadian obituaries and hats off to the noble obit writers.

“Because of the intimacy of [Britain and Canada] during the Second World War, when for over a year they were the only organized combattants against fascism and Nazism in the Northern Hemisphere,” he wrote, “there was widespread British interest in accomplished Canadian war veterans.”

“It is this group which now, unfortunately, has reached an age likely to attract the obiturists attention.”

The anthology gathers treasures from the vault of now-deceased editor of the Telegraph, Hugh Massingberd. As the story goes, Massingberd met the challenge of revamping obituaries so they’d be sharp, witty, and wise; they’d portray a person as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses which were developed by character and circumstances in the course of a unique life.

“He or she should be not only assessed, but shown as the person the reader would have encountered. None of this has much to do with death, it should be noted, and this book contains no litany of a deceased’s last six months in which the progress from one minor illness to others more serious is gloatingly traced to an inevitable conclusion.”

That last bit, including above-noted sentiments, belong not to Sue Vohanka, Conrad Black, Hugh Massingberd, or me. They come from an obit writer at the Telegraph back in the 90s, David Twiston Davies. Man oh man he knew his stuff.

My next few blog postings will excerpt specific Canadian obituaries from this book–the ones the Brits especially loved. The final obituary in the book is on Roger Marshall, “the bad boy of Canadian climbing,”

In Marshall’s story, unlike the others, death was a key detail: he died, alone, on Mount Everest.


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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