Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Passing of Hugh Massingberd

I was sad to read today of the passing of Hugh Massingberd, 60, of London. Massingberd was the past president of the Anthony Powell Society, of which I am a charter member. He was a former editor of Burke's Peerage, and the author of dozens of books on the English aristocracy and the great Country Houses of Britain. But most importantly, he was the long-time obituary editor of the Telegraph. Indeed, he single-handedly elevated what many considered to be a journalistic dead-end into a high art form. His own obituary can be found here, and here and here.

A master of understatement, Massingberd was clever, droll, possessed of an encyclopedic memory, sharp-witted but never cruel. And by all accounts, he was a much-beloved man, noted for his abundant generosity. The Telegraph noted that, Hugh knew instinctively that it is our peculiarities - our failings, our embarrassments - that make us who we are. This view of mankind as fallen, but redeemed through eccentricity, ran like a golden thread through all his obituaries...

Part of the fun lay in the style which Massingberd evolved to pin down the specimens on display. Liberace, readers were gravely informed, "never married". Hopeless drunks were "convivial". Total shits "did not suffer fools gladly". Financial fraudsters seemed "not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City".

The 1988 obituary of John Allego, a once noted Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, was a case in point. In later years, Allego unfortunately advanced a theory that both Judaism and Christianity were the products of a cult that worshipped both sex and mushrooms. Massingberd pronounced him "the Liberace of biblical scholarship." And on Liberace himself: "The first sign that Liberace had embarked upon a road along which reticence would never ride came when he placed a candelabra on his piano. At this, the dam of discretion appeared to burst: first came a white tail suit, followed by stage patter about his mother and his philosophy of life, then a gold lamé jacket and a diamond-studded tailcoat.”

Indeed, the Times even offers up an abridged Massingberd-English dictionary:

"Convivial": Habitually drunk.

"Did not suffer fools gladly": Monstrously foul-tempered.

"Gave colorful accounts of his exploits": A liar.

"A man of simple tastes": A complete vulgarian.

"A powerful negotiator": A bully.

"Relished the cadences of the English language": An incorrigible windbag.

"Relished physical contact": A sadist.

"An uncompromisingly direct ladies man": A flasher.

I have to admit, reading obituaries is a guilty pleasure of mine. I enjoy scanning the obituary page, whether it be in the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, or even our local paper. But no one on this side of the Atlantic carries on exactly in the tradition of Massingberd. Of course, outside of the New York Times, obituary-writing is hardly the art form here that it is in England.

On the local level, where the notices are written by the families themselves, the humor one finds is seldom intentional. I have my own theories about how to interpret obituaries. If the obituary gushes about how loving/adoring/precious the family was, then the family may be trying to compensate for their lack of attention during the lately departed's lifetime. If the obituary refers to how much they "loved their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," then I assume this person was the church busybody.

Referencing hobbies and/or obsessions can be problematic. Saying that the avid golfer is now "playing the fairways of Heaven" is just tacky. I once laughed out loud after reading the obituary of a man who "liked to collect rocks." I collect coffee mugs, in a casual way, but I would hope my survivors have enough taste to leave that little detail out of my obituary.

Also, just because your little great-granddaughter calls you "Pee-Paw," is that really any reason to put it in the obituary? One popular line is: "after a courageous battle with... (fill in the blank)." The way it is always phrased makes it sound as if the person had fought just a little harder they would have actually have vanquished Death. The ones that list pets as survivors are often good for a chuckle. Why are the surviving dogs always chihuahuas? Or why do so many people with chihuahuas die? Could these little yappers actually be the hounds of Hades?

One of my favorite plays is Greater Tuna, which chronicles the goings-on in the "third smallest town in Texas." In one scene, the Rev. Spikes, pastor of the Coweta Baptist Church, is eulogizing a parishioner, pulling out every tired cliche along the way. Wrapping up, Rev. Spikes concludes: "He never said die......And then he did."


s-p said...

Great post. I too try to read between the lines of obituaries and eulogies. The phenomenom of "preaching someone into heaven" is the fodder of many a good joke. I love the British understatement, I'm disappointed I'd never heard of Mr. Massingberd. He sounds like a gem.

Thirkellgirl said...

I received the link to your blog from a mutual friend of ours (an online friend for me) and I love your style! I'm an obituary-hound, too, and have links to the Times obituaries and my local paper right in my toolbar for daily perusal. The process of composing my parents' obituaries was the perfect way for a word-oriented middle-aged woman to begin to come to terms with her own aging. :) Looking forward to reading more in future!

Jacob said...

I wish I had saved a very lengthy obituary I recall from, I believe, The Kansas City Star in the late 1980's. A young man had died and the the obituary (obviously written by loving and well-meaning family members) went on and on about his life and his love of nature, etc. Then about halfway through, it said something like:

"It was on one of his nature hikes in the woods of such-and-such-a-place that, as he was at the top of the trail admiring the view of the broad vista before him, the ledge on which he was standing suddenly gave way, and he plunged 400 feet to the bottom of the cliff."

And then the obituary continued ad infinitum about more things about this young man's life.


- - -

I understand you now have a more permanent priest. Congratulations!

John said...

thrkellgirl--thanks for the nice words. And the obituary toolbar is a great idea! A person who can enjoy a good obituary is someone, in my opinion, who has the right attitude towards life. Obituary-hounds do not take themselves oh-so-seriously. I also understand what you are saying about the experience of writing your parent's obituaries. I wrote the obituary for each of mine.

Jacob--yes, that one is a classic. And yes, we had our first services with our new priest this last weekend. I very much enjoyed meeting your fellow parishioner, Leif, who was visiting with us.

Anonymous said...

I too just happened on your blog - and this posting - and I am enjoying your writing style. You write very well and are a pleasure to read.

And I too read the obits. every morning on my train ride in to work, in one of our National newspapers here in Toronto. However, my interest in them stems largely from the fact that I know a large number of people in our cultural community and this is the only way to learn if any of them may have passed on to a better place before I do.

I've read my fair share of every kind possible but alway appreciate a conscisely written piece with just the right balance of personal detail, humour and humility. I am always touched however by the sheer variety of experiences of those who live around us.

Keep up the good work.

PS Didn't mean to sign in anon. In process of setting up an acct.

John said...

Anon, write back when you get your account set up. I visited Toronto last September--great city, though I hate the new ROM!