In last Sundays NY Times, public editor Arthur Brisbane has an entertaining column in which he explains some of the criteria that govern the selection of the people who will be graced with an obituary in the paper. Times obituaries, he offers, go not to the conventionally virtuous but to the famous, the influential, the offbeat and to others whose lives, through writerly intervention, can be alchemized into newsprint literature. There are also a few descriptions of how obituary-writers go about their work. Brisbane also offers a blog-thread on the subject here.Around 2003 or so, I received an invitation from the London Times, no less, to prepare an obituary for then Cardinal Ratzinger that they could keep on hand for use when he should die. I dutifully wrote the obituary to their specifications; I will not claim it approached "newsprint literature". A year or two later, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, and I wrote to the obituary-editor: I think well need a new opening paragraph.East coast Irish Americans of a certain age seem to take a special pleasure in reading obituaries; its the first thing some of them turn to in the paper. One told me it was his fathers way of gloating that he had outlived the SOB's.... Is this an ethnic thing?Brisbane refers to a book by Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, which sounds like it could be a good read.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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