Biography 26.3 (2003) 453-456
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Is it perverse to enjoy death notices? Researching my last book, I spent many hours in the Egyptian National Library happily riveted by obituaries published in nineteenth-century Arabic periodicals. Like Mushira Eid, I was keen to elicit the differences gender might make in the capsule renderings of a life now mourned. I found obituaries in women's magazines to be an essential source as I traced the rhetoric of exemplary biography in and of women's lives.
Eid works on the more familiar type of obituary: the family-written and family paid-for notice in newspapers of record: Cairo's al-Ahram, Teheran's Ettela'at, and New York's Times. A sociolinguist, Eid is interested in what linguistic markers of identity, and the space devoted to remembrance of lives through announcements of deaths, tell us about conventions of obituary writing and their interrelation with the societies in which they are produced and read. She chose to sample obituaries from the three newspapers for one month a decade apart, reading texts from 1938 and ensuing ten-year intervals through 1998.
Eid begins by introducing us to the obituary form in each culture—Egypt, Iran, the United States—through offering selected obituary texts in translation. She goes on to analyze, by means of formidable statistical comparisons, the relative space on the page that individual obituaries occupy, and the deployment of identity markers for the deceased and for survivors (name, social and professional titles, and occupation) along axes of culture, sex, and time.
I am not a statistician, and I cannot judge her statistical methods, but I can appreciate that she presents her methods and results in great detail, for others to judge, and that she offers tables and graphs that a non-statistician can fathom. What interested me were her careful conclusions and the organization of her material, which she presents as an unfolding puzzle about the relationship of obituary writing to "social realities." Having begun, she notes, with the assumption that obituaries would represent the societies from which they emerged in a fairly straightforward manner, she found that her material demanded a more subtle sense of interplay among social identities, textual representations, and contexts of production and reception. She formulated an interrelated web of obituary definition, according to role (announcement [End Page 453] versus status indication), orientation (deceased individual versus family), and mutual benefit, predicated on obituary as a form of communication from the late individual's family to the broader society, seeking social participation in funeral rites and (I would suggest) thereby acknowledging and further consolidating the family, in its various forms, as the basic social, economic, and ideological unit of organization for the nation. In this broader framework, Eid's use of gender as a central organizing feature of obituary writing can be connected to ways in which gender differences have been constructed in various societies to the benefit of national solidarity and state construction.
For gender is key to Eid's analytic framework, and gender also provided a motive for the research: the author notes, autobiographically, that when she first started reading obituaries for 1938 in the Egyptian press, the impression she quickly formed of "a society without women" left her "cold, disappointed, and confused" (15). Shouldn't the presumed equality of death resultin equity of obituary space and identification? Her resulting inquiry is of interest to scholars of auto/biography in following the linkages of a rhetoric of identity (naming practices, and titles both social and professional) to positions of relative social authority and visibility in a particular time and place. It seems no surprise that obituaries of women are allotted less space cross-culturally, and that they are identified, across culture and time although with significant variability, more often according to their family relations as social roles than to professional titles, or even, in Iran and Egypt, to given names. Eid adduces...