Monday, January 7, 2019

Better late than never? The problem of the untimely obituary

How did I miss Harvey Schmidt?

The second question obituarists ask themselves all the time is: when is a reportage of a death no longer timely?

(The first is, of course, is the subject actually dead? A friend of mine at the local jazz station announced the death of composer/pianist Horace Silver one morning on air, only to have Silver’s son call him up laughing and telling him, “Man, he’s sitting right across from me, eating some cereal.” Such retractions are embarrassing, but who wouldn’t be happy about the continued existence of Horace Silver?)

How long is a dead person ‘late’? How far back can we go to pick up the details of a life lived? When is it no longer news? When does reportage ripen into history?

I mention this because it’s year’s end and all the rosters of the celebrated dead are gathered and published. Hell, this year even I joined in for the first time. And in reviewing other obituarists’ lists I find people I, the person who’s supposed to be keeping an eye out for those who die out of the spotlight, missed completely. I mean, some massive fails. For instance, how did I miss Harvey Schmidt, who composed the longest-running musical history, The Fantasticks?

So, I have a handful of life stories to post that go clearly past the timeliness date. Now, this infuriates some fellow obituary obsessives, who get very very very very very very annoyed on chat rooms if an ‘old’ obit gets posted. (From experience, I guesstimate this to be more than a month or so after date of death.) I imagine they are apoplectic about the New York Times’ laudable “Overlooked No More” obituary project, which seeks to redress the thanatological balance in favor of white men by publishing the obits of long-dead significant women, and other disenfranchised portions of the populace.

“Overlooked” is fascinating, penetrating, and a valuable way to raise consciousness about significant people whose deaths didn’t merit mention because they didn’t fit an older definition of significance. But does it consist of true obit? They aren’t written under the pressure of time, an essential factor in the sport/art of journalism. However, many obits are pre-written to a large degree. At the Times and many other publications, significant figures have rough-draft evaluations of their lives filed away, ready for the inevitable.

When someone dies, my old newshound instinct wants me to be first with the announcement, wants me to scoop others or ignite their envy (“Wher’d you hear about THAT?”). Get it first, get it fast, get it right — usually in that order. But I try not to get crazy about that imperative of timeliness. It is easier and faster than ever to comb through sources online finding out obituary information, but the speed and scope of that 24/7 firehose blast of data means it would take a monkish devotion and an anxious, brittle compulsivity to attend it singlehandedly. But I can’t be that person who monitors the news streams constantly. I do like having a real life! And Obit Patrol is for me an avocation, not an occupation (unless you’d like to throw some cash my way . . . no?).

So, to answer the question I first posed, I try to post a death within days of finding out about it, but I will reach back a year if I have to.

Yvette Vickers
And there are always exceptions. In 2011, a mummified corpse was found on the floor of a house in Los Angeles. It was the body of Yvette Vickers, B-movie starlet from the 1950s. How long had she been dead? No one could determine. I ran the obit. I can’t think of anyone who needed one more than she did.

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