The New York Times Online has a wonderful feature, Talk to the Newsroom, in which readers send questions to a different editor or writer each week. Last week, obituaries editor Bill McDonald was in the spotlight. He answered questions about whether or not celebrities try to shade aspects of their lives, how to write an obit of a living person, whom to cover, how much dirty laundry to air, and whether Long Island’s dead get short shrift. I hung onto every word. obits

Partly that’s because I was raised to treat death as a fact of life, without euphemism. My parents said someone “died,” not “passed away.” To this day, if I hear that someone has “passed,” I think of kidney stones.

Partly, my fascination stemmed from the fact that I have written obituaries for my father-in-law, my mother, a friend from book club. In the last week I helped my dad edit the obituary he wrote for his brother, buried yesterday, and helped a friend with a eulogy he has to deliver today. A dear friend, who will live for many more decades, knock on wood, has already made me promise to write her obit. It’s the least, and the last, thing I can do for someone. To sum up a life is a challenge and an honor.

I was glad to see that the NYT’s McDonald absolutely favors reporting cause of death. Leaving out this crucial piece of information is simply bad reporting, although if a family really makes a case for privacy, he may make an exception. This is in stark contrast to my college alumni magazine, which never reports any cause of death at all. Period. Here are some of the ways my classmates have checked out: in a plane crash over Hawaii on his honeymoon, in a motorcycle wreck in Vietnam, at the hands of her husband, and in a hospital bed, of breast cancer.

But I don’t know this from reading Denison Magazine’s omituaries, (copyright 2008 Mothers of Brothers) which absurdly and primly refuse to acknowledge the last act of life. Although everyone dies of something, you would think that Denison graduates are just plucked from their ordinary lives and beamed up in a Rapture-like pneumatic tube in the after-life equivalent of Greek pledge night. “Welcome to Omega! Now put on this robe and prepare for hazing.” Like a book missing its last page, these omituaries create a sense of unease, prevent closure, and raise more questions than they answer. And as the NYT editor says, that’s not good journalism.

The English don’t pussyfoot around. As a nation, they are famously averse to euphemism. In that spirit, here is a snippet from a quintessential British obituary from The Times of London in 1985. It reported the death of a rather old man, who died “peacefully at home, while watching Wimbledon.” Not only is that a fine and very English way to go, it’s a vivid and memorable piece of reportage.

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