When I’m writing an obituary, I live among the family. Not literally, of course, but emotionally. It begins with reading the death notice, usually written by one of the deceased’s children, placed in a newspaper at great cost and twigging my interest: a life worthy of more newspaper inches. Then I make a phone call.
“The Globe and Mail” acts as a foot in the door and we’re off. I set up interviews, usually limiting them to one or two family members and one or two colleagues. Sometimes the subject of my storytelling no longer has living colleagues and so I hope, in these instances, the children flesh out details of their parent’s life and career well enough.
Ideally, they’ll be able to excavate key research documents like news clippings, CVs, or if I’m really lucky, a sufficiently well-written memoir plump with anecdotes and colour.
With each tiny speck of fact I slide deeper into the story. I become a plant, as I said, within the family: circling the lore; expanding the mythology; rooting among untruths for accuracy. And always, always articulating history.
History of an individual but also factors that shape society and ourselves, that’s a goal and I often achieve it in the obituaries I publish about the lives that interest us. But there’s a microcosm entered, as I said, between myself and family members whom I also come to know, the life in the works, as it were.
It’s reflected in the mad-dash emails to-ing and fro-ing for the duration of the assignment: fact checking; clarifying quotes; detailing of the colour of a polyester suit he wore the day he was presented an Order of Canada; inspiration behind a famed collage hung in a gallery; the truth behind a love affair that threatened to shift my subject’s life back in the 60s; a hushed adoption.
I filed an article yesterday about a 23-year-old upper class Cambridge medical student on the front lines at liberating Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It brought me into contact with his adult children who hadn’t fully known about their father’s “Belsen Diary” before he died last month.
Hugely piqued, I asked them for exclusive rights to this manuscript for a period of six months, so I could explore a wider audience for what I believe has important historical relevance and should be known.
“Yes, Yes!” say his children.
“Let him rest,” says his widow.
And so I undoubtedly shall.
Intrusion, violation, and exploitation are far, far from my intentions, ever. But neither do I shy away from expressing a desire to preserve what must be remembered. His widow will decide.
The picture above depicts this man, and his young friends, in April, 1945, as they prepare to surrender to the world-as-they-know-it.
Thank you, to his family, who also told me stories about this man’s post-Belsen attempt at a life and why it ought to be marked in a page, not merely a notice.