There was controversy in the obituary world last month following the death of pioneering rocket scientist Yvonne Brill. The debacle was discussed in “What’s an Obituary For?” an article written by Megan Garber and published in The Atlantic.
I’ll borrow generously from this article and urge you to read the fuller version as well. “The controversy started, as it so often does, with beef stroganoff,” leads off the discussion.
Yvonne Brill was given a send-off in the New York Times. Here’s the lede Douglas Martin wrote on this remarkable woman’s life:
“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”
She was Stroganoffed, wrote the Atlantic writer.
“There’s the gender issue, first of all: the fact that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a male scientist of Brill’s standing getting stroganoffed in this way. (“Oh yes, by the way, Number One Mom Yvonne Brill, Preparer of Divine Beef Stroganoff, Cleaner of Messy Diapers, also invented a little system that helped make satellites work.”)
Garber said the first sentence of an obituary is not only prime memorial real estate but also coded real estate — a sentence-long summation of somebody’s broad impact on society.
“Obituaries are fundamentally different from other kinds of journalism. They are not, strictly speaking, profiles. They are not news stories. They don’t necessarily aspire to be comprehensive — which is, when the “story” is somebody’s life, impossible.
“They don’t necessarily aspire to be balanced — which is, when the subject is a recently deceased person, insensitive.
“Obituaries function not just as good reading, but as structured morality tales, their interfaces subtly guiding human behavior. This is how to be. This is what we prize. The obituary is a life made normative.
“And so we read about Yvonne Brill, after her death, not because she is interesting (which she is), or because she was loved (which she was), but because her life reflects — in a broad and collectively calculated way — what we have decided to value, publicly and explicitly, as human accomplishment.
“Obits denude, by design. They are not eulogies, or even elegies, but object lessons: They strip away almost all the facts of somebody’s life so that the life may be refigured as a fable. They turn humans into allegories.
“Brill’s obit violated, on top of everything else, the formulas that allow for that transformation. And that was the broadest, if not the biggest, problem with the Stroganoff Sentence. Within the first line of this inky monument to achievement — within the context, as it were, of no context — stroganoff was, in every way, too meaty. The obit tried to humanize Brill, but it did so without first making clear why we were reading about her in the first place. Babies! Beau! Beef! (And also rocket science!)
Under pressure, Martin re-wrote the lede.