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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sharing the Footprints of Life and Death: Genealogy and the Obituary By Carolyn Gilbert

The study of genealogy and the art of the obituary share important components.  However, sometimes we fail to explore the interdisciplinery aspects of the two.  The article below was written by Carolyn Gilbert at the request of Sandra Luebking, Editor, Federation of Genealogical Societies, for their FORUM Magazine for inclusion in the summer issue 2008. 


Sharing the Footprints of Life and Death

By Carolyn Milford Gilbert, Founder
International Association of Obituarists

Both obituarists and genealogists are the subjects of a number of common misconceptions by the public. One is that we are quiet, nearly invisible researchers and writers who march to a different drummer---maybe one that is draped in black and carries a scythe! Another is that our chosen discipline is one that is dull, unblinking, set in stone and carries us through strange silent libraries and cemeteries. The great unwashed public often thinks the subjects of genealogy and obituaries are of little interest to those who are alive and well.

Au contraire!! While we as obituary writers and genealogists share a common interest in those who have gone to their just reward, it is not their death in which we are primarily interested: it is their LIFE. It is easy enough to put birth date and date of death after a person’s name; however, our mutual interest is in what happened in the space between those dates.

A major difference between our chosen passions is that genealogists usually have a vested interest in the journey in order to discover personal connections and pathways. As obituarists, we typically are writing a life story about strangers with whom we are not even acquainted. Of course, in both categories there are professionals who offer their skills on contract and are hired to assist individual clients.

Obituarists have the disadvantage of not being able to interview the subject of the obituary (unless the obit is written in advance with the assistance of the subject.) Obituaries are sometimes bland notices of death listing survivors, time and place of funeral / memorial, and the presiding celebrant. However, the obituary we treasure is the one sharing life history, family members, accomplishments, ambitions, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures. We often refer to the obituary as the world’s shortest short story. Many times it is the only article documenting a person’s life.

Another drawback to obituary writing is the “deadline” ( pardon the pun) we face in preparing the material. In cases of tragedy or unanticipated demise, a writer may have only a few hours to gather information, interview family, research history and turn out a meaningful piece of journalism for the next issue. This fact of life and death calls for an extraordinary writer who can perform under duress day after day.

Of course, we obituarists think the grass is always greener on the other side of the equation—such as genealogy. You may have plenty of time to track your ancestors from the old world to your present location. You may be able to travel to out-of-the –way places in order to research the genealogy of family or friend. You may have the luxury of interviewing real, live sources who can give you lots of time and marvelous memories to add to your search. You may be able to access the many emerging sources of data to enhance your challenge. You might even search for obituaries in order to gain insight into the life for which you are searching!

It is here where our two interests intersect. We as obituarists sometimes find ourselves the unwitting explorer of genealogy as we seek to flesh out life stories on our assignments. Time constraints might prevent us from being able to delve as deeply as we would like into family genealogy of a subject. However, even a skeletal outline of genealogy gives the obituarist more information to weave into the obituary and, perhaps, a contact with whom to speak.

An interesting question: which came first—the obituary or genealogical footprint?

The answer is probably like the chicken and the egg query. Who knows? It occurs to me that we have a symbiotic relationship so intertwined in technique and research that we could be blood brothers. But I suppose genealogy would disprove that!
We know that obituaries are like bread crumbs on that trail of genealogy you follow. Your research often informs our writing as well.

The International Association of Obituarists includes a number of genealogists who have been very valuable to our conferences over the years. In fact, they have posed a couple of questions that might be of interest to you. One question has to do with the art of the obituary and the surge of professionalism and literary quality of the obituary during the 1980’s. In fact, some historians refer to this period as the “Golden Age” of obituary writing.

This improvement can be traced to an American obituarist who took the road less traveled in order to make the obituary a living, breathing document. It was Alden Whitman, the creative writer of obituaries for The New York Times, who went beyond the standard obituary format by interviewing friends and family of the deceased in an effort to make the obituary more personal, more biographical and more reflective of the true spirit of the subject. He relayed life experiences—some poignant and some humorous, quotes from friends as well as stories of success and failure.

At about the same time, Hugh Massingberd of the Daily Telegraph in London, U.K.,
perfected his obituary style in this land of great obituary writers by injecting his great wit, his unbelievable store of knowledge of the realm and his magnificent writing. It was during this period that Massingberd engineered the collections of great obituaries from the Daily Telegraph. Although Massingberd suffered from poor health and had to resign far too early from his duties of obituaries editor, he trained, cajoled and inspired a cadre of young journalists by his example. Hugh Massingberd died on Christmas Day 2007 . His obituary was written by his protégés led by Andrew McKie , current obituaries editor, Daily Telegraph.

Another question inquiring minds seem to want to know is whether or not I have written my own obituary. The answer is “No” since I have not yet expired! The real reason is that I still have lots of things to accomplish and I wouldn’t want to leave them out. As a former teacher of English and creative writing, I often asked students to draft their own obituary. It was a good exercise in self-appraisal ; however, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, students were more mortified than inspired. But it certainly got their attention as to how important it is to realize that one’s entire life would eventually be reduced to a few hundred words in the daily news.

The art of the obituary combined with the science of genealogy provides us with the humanistic record of one’s life. There is plenty of room for error----like the obituary containing information that is blatantly untrue (but unchallenged!) Because standard paid obituaries are not checked for factual accuracy except to confirm the death, many obits there are that have portrayed the subject as far more accomplished than he was in truth. There have also been separate obits submitted by warring sides of a family that omit or include facts and relatives depending on which side of the family wrote the obituary! This can really mislead or at least confuse the genealogical side of the journey.

Genealogy provides a graphic path of families for all to see. The most graphic example I have seen of the “family tree” approach to genealogy was on the wall of the family room in the historic ranch house at the King Ranch, Kingsville, Texas. The entire wall was covered with a rendering of an actual tree on whose branches rested each descendent of the well-known, wealthy ranching family. On close inspection, it was observed that the wife of one of the heirs was missing from her branch. Our tour guide explained that when the divorce occurred, the divorcee was simply painted out of the tree! Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right, does it? But it does confirm the human element of research.

In the end, it is clear that we do, indeed, share many common footprints---the footprints of life and death.


This article was written by Carolyn Gilbert at the request of Sandra Luebking, Editor of the Federation of Genealogical Societies FORUM Magazine for inclusion in the summer issue 2008.

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