Wednesday, September 15, 2010

For history buffs, newspaper obits are a trove

Express Staff Writer

One of my reading addictions is newspaper obituaries, not just to compare my mortality against ages of the departed, but to grab a daily fix of history involving people from the widest array of backgrounds who've left a mark, good or bad, on the planet.

As an aside: One of my major disappointments in large daily newspapers is a lack of obituaries. They provide fascinating reading about men and women who meant something in the past when today's living were younger.

The New York Times is an exception, however. It provides the world's best daily recap of deaths of the famous and infamous, plus an obituary archive that stretches back for well over a century.

Yesterday's obituary page is a fine example.

Three lists were published—22 people of major importance, in the Times' estimation, 19 of lesser rank and an archives list of 18, leading off the latter with the 1922 death of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Consider the eclectic list of the latest obituaries.

An evolution theorist, character actor, defender of small vices, French film director, cult film actor, promoter of politicians and antacid, Packers' tight end, Baptist pastor-peacemaker, diplomat, historian, chess grandmaster, folk music guru, editor and publisher, Metromedia founder, "Bonanza" creator, "What's New Pussycat?" creator, Navajo wartime code talker, authoress, police inspector and ex-president of Vassar.

Ages ranged from 104 down to 77 years.

The secondary list was as diverse.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, also is a rich source of biographies of the living and dead, remarkably up to the minute. Even as major news services are announcing a development involving persons, that information is posted on Wikipedia. When watching a film on TV, ever wonder whatever happened to actors in the film of yore? Check Wikipedia.

If obituaries can be a comfort to families when extolling a life of noble work, they can be just as devastating when recapping lives of reprehensible public rascality.

Whatever else Bernie Madoff may have meant as father and husband, the lead sentence of his obituary will identify him as a shameless con man and embezzler.

And what of politicians who've made news with lunatic beliefs or who abuse their public trust for the sake of momentary campaign benefits? How about actors and actresses who've worked their way into celebrity as drunks, drug addicts and harlots?

When the last word is written about their lives, it'll be too late for spin-doctors and Hollywood press agents to rehabilitate their images and cover up dark, memorable slides into misery, mediocrity and shame.

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