Belfast Telegraph

Obituaries are last word on our lives... and no one's quite as they seem

By Mike Gilson

I read the obituaries in newspapers regularly these days. It's a sign of getting older. The urge to appreciate the lives of the people commemorated, to follow their story arc, grows the more you start to imagine what your own might read like even though there's no chance of it ever being written.

You can't help but measure the fortunes of the newly deceased against your own. Even the relatively unknown ones – the business leaders, the generals and trade union officials – are fascinating in their own way. You look for the easy leg-ups they got (if you think class is a no longer an issue in Britain, read the obits in The Times and Daily Telegraph) or the stroke of luck, or the hard work and inspiration that changed their lives.

Good obit writers bring so much rich detail to the lives of their subjects you can scarcely believe we are reading about the now departed. Sadly, this is fleeting. You forget quickly who passes until reminded in the "those we have lost" features in the end of year reviews.

The time for remembrance is short. Life goes on is the truest cliché in history. More obits join the pile every day, the minuscule tip of the iceberg of loss and grief that is part of our existence.

In the past obit writers would employ euphemism to cover details. Phrases like "confirmed bachelor" were used to avoid issues of sexuality and even now, respect, albeit not uncritical, is the order of the day.

It's edifying to read that the subjects left some kind of mark on this world even if it will fade quickly. That's what we all want, isn't it?

My favourites are the politicians and actors. The former because those with decent careers were almost entirely built on huge slices of good luck. It makes you feel slightly better if truth be told.

The latter are fascinating because, apart from a few exceptions, you suspect the mark they left is not quite what they had in mind when they set out. To put it brutally, most would have wanted to be King Lear but many ended up with their hands up glove puppets on children's TV. That doesn't make them bad Shakespearean actors, it's just that not everyone can be Gielgud.

Take Sam Kelly and Francis Matthews. Who? I hear you cry. Exactly. But if I said Sam played the conman Bunny Warren in prison sitcom Porridge alongside Ronnie Barker and the second was the voice of puppet hero Captain Scarlett, you might nod in recognition.

Both were the subjects of obits on Monday. And true to form it transpires both were excellent stage actors in their own right. Does it matter that we don't remember this? After all, Matthews voiced the coolest super hero of all time (Gerry Anderson's supermarionated Scarlett was a dark, brooding, complex hero who was so much more interesting than the squeaky clean Tracey family of Thunderbirds) and Kelly's conman will forever be on hand to amuse new generations as Porridge is brought out for one more outing as a Christmas repeat.

I think what obituaries show us is no one is quite what they seem. People make the best of what life hands them. Some, those lucky enough to be written about in the papers, light up their tiny space in the cosmos for a nanosecond. The rest of us, orbiting unheralded, just hope our own imaginary obituary will have more good bits in it than bad.

And, far more importantly, that we have loved and been loved.

  • Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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