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My first assignment in journalism was to write obituaries for the British Medical Journal. Some years later an aged consultant whose obituary I had put on the file raced me to a bus stop, and won.
Years later, now I am aged, all publishers seem to want from me are obituaries. An editor at the Independent was kind enough to say I had made a contribution to the nursing profession with my obituaries of nurses.
I was determined that nurses, like doctors and politicians, should feature on the obit pages of national papers, and that nursing journals should carry obituaries.
They are not the same thing as an address at a funeral or memorial service. Obituaries should be a record of what people did as well as a picture of who they were. There needs to be facts about their career, but most of all they must tell a story.
I try to mention as many hospitals as I can, because this alerts nurses who worked there, and I must mention the training school.
Of course it helps if there is something dramatic to open with, as when I wrote: 'Abandoned on the steps of a workhouse, Avis Hutt became a pioneering nurse educationalist and a middle class Communist Party activist.'
Or 'Kathleen Wilson was a nurse lecturer and textbook author but she also played the stock market, had a respectable golf handicap and was keen on shooting and fishing'.
I want my readers to share the experiences of my subjects. Northern Ireland's first chief nursing officer, Mona Grey, had been brought up in the India of the British Raj. She had had people to tie her shoelaces for her and so found life training at the London Hospital very difficult at the start.
An obituary writer has to be a researcher, historian and detective. But there are constraints. One problem is lack of space and what to leave out, another is how you deal with unpalatable facts about people.
Obituaries may be prepared in advance and then updated, but most have to be written against what is appropriately termed a 'deadline'.
Nowadays they are sent by email. Nothing speeded up my computer literacy more than the obituaries editor of the Independent making it clear copy had to be emailed.
Sometimes you must write the obituary of a friend. Peggy Nuttall, former Nursing Times editor, was my collaborator, phoning me to ask: 'Have you heard so-and-so has died?' and filling me in with information. As I wrote her obituary I was grieving personally but felt the discipline of the obituary writer. I regretted I had not asked her more about her life before illness, and then death silenced her.
I do not just write obituaries. I read them. They are the most interesting part of magazines and papers. A good one can illuminate who that person was.
analysis: june 27 :: vol 26 no 43 :: 2012
Laurence Dopson's last NS book review of Bombs over Paisley
Obituary: Laurence Dopson