Writing Obituaries, One Example

William Saroyan 1908 - 1981

An iconoclast, he would not have begun this obituary describing himself as an Armenian American of Fresno and Paris, although these were facts.  Rather, I imagine this line from him:

A writer in thrall of the zest in people and in ideas and in himself, who wrote around forty books, including the immigrant stories My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy of immigrants returning home, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and yes, buy those books please, some of the monies will find a way back to my family and I hope you like them, or some parts of some of them, that's all I can ask.  

Which he did not write, as far as I know, but might be pleased by it.  

For his 1979 collection of memoir, Obituaries, he began with the list from Variety magazine's Necrology Registrar for 1976.

This book is in homage to the dead.  You are so many, so great, so finished, and we are so few, so silly, so unfinished and so unfinishable except by that which finished you, whatever it may be called, except death, a trite and meaningless word.  Finished then, by life?  That's the ticket.  All aboard, folks.  

Monday August 21, 1978, Paris.

This was our first taste of his defiance of death.

A fine obituary allows for sorrow that we are all temporary, although our consequences are not.  What were the consequences of this person?  How will the continuous world now be carried forward because of this life?  In which direction?  

Arnold Gingrich.  He was a founder in the early 1930s of Esquire magazine, with the financial support of a clothing manufacturer who might have borne the name Smart.  The magazine was large and fat, and what Arnold Gingrich wanted was something along the lines of that thing that came to be identified or summed - up by the Mexican slang as macho, and machismo: a kind of masculine magazine pure and simple, or whatever.   The idea caught on, and he ran The Crack - up by F Scott Fitzgerald, and he may even have brought that confession into being by asking the rattled writer to earn some of the money that Gingrich had advanced to him for short stories, to earn it by writing anything, anything at all, man, and probably desperately and even possibly very reluctantly the writer told himself, his wife Zelda, his girlfriend the gossip columnist Sheila Graham, his literary friends like Ernest  Hemingway and Edmund Wilson to name only two, the editor of Esquire, the readers of Esquire, and the world at large, how he had fallen or had been brought down.  Like all of his writing, it is good, but it is also sorrowful and a kind of pain.  You can straighten yourself out, man, you can lay off the source, fellow, you can stop feeling sorry for yourself, boy, you can become a lot less pompous about who you are and what you have done, sir, you can take it slow and easy and straighten out and either happily give up writing completely, or happily return to it better than ever.            

A writer often sees the design of an obituary as a commemoration, respectful of a useful and productive life, but a better piece will try for revivification, to give the subject a further life, or anyway a further presence in our life.  This stands well beside Saroyan's irreverence, his defiance, derisive of death, meeting his own soon after Obituaries, on May 18 1981 at Fresno California.

Obituaries is not about Death, it is about that large mystery that has come out of light and is, of course, called Life.  (And the hell with that too.)  

He would not have cared for the respectful tone of those written to mark his own death.  He may well have believed being too respectful of the dead is being too respectful of death itself.  

A fine obituary may deliver the subject's own authentic voice.  Saroyan did not believe in this.  In every line the voice is unmistakably his, zestful, generously rambling, with always an overtone of emotion we recognize as human kindness. His tone is ever of a man who generously loves life, and in him is the need to love, to love us, all of us.

So if you are that great lover of life that every red- blooded human being is, don't despair, settle down and never say die, as Tokyo Rose (one of a dozen, poor girl) said on television when she was finally pardoned by Gerald Ford a couple of days before he turned over the President's chair to Jimmy Carter - it was beautiful hearing that girl say "never say die" after she had done a dozen or more years in federal penitentiaries, because like Ezra Pound, who did his time in St Elizabeth's hospital, she was  supposed to be guilty of treason.  Or something.  Lover of life, go right on being a lover of life, and say never say die........

News presses like to be thrifty with space for obituaries and its editor may be a part-timer, rewarded with this job after years of journalistic service before being, as A J Liebling called it, ‘being hit by the iron ball,’ now nervously timid, but celebrity is power in this niche of the press, and for Saroyan some spectacular prolixity might loosen the yoke.  This editor will require a roll-call of family survival, in Saroyan's case ex-wife the actress Carol Grace, the children Lucy and Aram, but let's add this accolade: William Saroyan was also survived by a grand number of his readers.  

That's it, that's the end of the list.  I did my best, and let me urge you to do your best, too.  Isn't that the least we can do for one another?  

William Saroyan 1979.