Back when pterodactyls still ruled the sky, I attended a modest journalism school on the prairies, where I learned the high value placed on conciseness. Flashy writing style, a clever hand with a slick 'bookend' to wrap an article; all of these paled in importance against the value of packing the maximum meaning into the fewest words. Only accuracy and objectivity trumped conciseness in the pre-O.J. heyday of journalism.
This, then, is likely to be the source of my appreciation for the art of the obituary. A well written obit is a tiny, perfect gem of writing, encapsulating the birth, life and death of everyone from your great-aunt Petunia to Elvis in the same pithy two or three paragraphs.
Much less appreciated than that other exemplar of brevity, the much ballyhooed headline specialist – and indeed, often thought of as just a tad bit off, like that kid you knew in Grade Nine who brought his dad's books about Hitler to school – the obit writer is nevertheless as accomplished a surgeon with the delete key.
In her mordantly funy book The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, author Marilyn Johnson describes the art of the obituarist (and I love the collective noun she coins for her ilk: "a wake of obituarists") as well as their peculiar social rituals (another revelation: like any other occupation, obituarists gather together for an annual Vegas summit, the Great Obituary Writers' International Conference) and motivations.
A fin de siecle feeling about old media may also be one of the motivations behind my idea to create the Newsvine group –Thirty– to collect obits and associated ephemera. I am starting to believe the hype behind Web 2.0, and suspect that it's right in hypothesizing that the death of the newspaper is not far off. If this is true, as Johnson writes, it's only appropriate that the obit as an art form is flourishing.