In an obituary of a prominent woman scientist, the New York Times opened the first paragraph noting that she cooked a “mean beef stroganoff” in her role of wife and mother. They were quickly criticized as sexist for mentioning this trivial homemaker’s skill before her scientific accomplishments. The Times writer, on the other hand, defended it as a teaser to set up the next paragraph, the “ah-ha!” paragraph, that described her professional life.
The wussy New York Times caved and rewrote it:
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.
But Yvonne Brill . . . was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
She was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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. Yvonne Brill . . . in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
Which do you prefer? I see nothing demeaning in the first, but that is just me.
Professional obituary writers generally agree that adding human elements brings life to famous but anonymous figures. This one on Osama bin Laden is an example:
“Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse.”
I wrote about obituaries in the posting on July 21, 2008, pointing out that they once were very brief, only a couple of lines listing the funeral arrangements. If you knew the deceased, they assumed you already knew about their life—if you did not know them, you did not care. Of course, a prominent person, such as the woman scientist, would have gotten an extended obituary even back then, but now in our egalitarian world everyone gets a long obituary that can run on to half a column describing how they loved following the Phillies and spending time with their beloved family (who uses “beloved” in normal conversation?).
I am writing my own obituary, mainly to help my descendents with the details, but they are free to discard the whole thing and write something entirely different. Laws express society’s attitudes, and our law says once a person dies, they no longer exist, and rights cannot extend to something that does not exist.
So far, I only have the first line, “If you are reading this, I must have died, but I do not know how.” It is a great opening and I hope they keep it. Who would not want to read further?