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Chapter 1 Obituaries across Cultures [The] growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. —George Eliot, Middlemarch When I saw men honor the memory of Bahithat alBadiya and praise her virtues, I cast away my selfishness in sorrowing over my brother and called upon my sisters to perform their duty to Bahithat al-Badiya. We conducted a eulogy for her at the Egyptian University. The women requested that I lead it, and thus I took to the rostrum for the first time in my life. . . . I used to look to her whenever I felt the need for her unique patriotism and courage. I used to talk to her inside myself. I heard her voice in my conscience. —Huda Shaarawi, 19371 1. OBITUARIES AS SOURCE OF INFORMATION Obituaries are in a sense society’s final public tribute to its dead, and as such they reflect aspects of the social perception—hence identification—of people. This final tribute, viewed as a cultural variable, takes different forms in different cultures. Most popular perhaps in many cultures are eulogies for the deceased presented (and at times published) by family members, friends, and colleagues. Elegiac poetry may be popular in some cultures (such as preIslamic Arabia), but tombstone inscriptions may be more popular in others (for example, European culture). Newspaper obituaries constitute another such form; these are what I study in this volume. 21 22 Chapter 1 Newspaper obituaries may be written by the family of the deceased or by newspaper staff independent, for the most part, of the family. Newspapers distinguish between the two types simply because family-written obituaries are paid for by the family (and possibly friends of the deceased), whereas staffwritten obituaries are usually considered news items. Some English-language newspapersreservetheterm“obituary”forstaff-writtenobituariesandusesuch terms as “death notices,” “death announcements,” and the like for familywritten ones. Arabic and Persian-language newspapers do not make such a linguistic distinction but restrict the obituary pages to the family-written type and consider staff-written obituaries to be news items published in other pages of the newspaper in accordance with the importance of the deceased. When presidents or major (literary, political, sports, art, etc.) figures die, their death is usually reported as a news item on the front page, whereas less prominent people get written up in other pages. The prominence of such figures, however, and the fact that their death is already reported as news does not preclude a family-written obituary as well.2 Staff-written obituaries of relatively less prominent people are included in some newspapers—for example, the New York Times—on the same page as family-written obituaries. Some others—for example, the Egyptian Al-Ahram and the Iranian Ettela  at—may insert a oneor two-line statement at the end of an obituary to express condolences to the families. (See obituary 29 in section 2 of this chapter.) Variation exists among both family- and staff-written newspaper obituaries across cultures and over time. British newspaper obituaries have undergone a drastic change during the past twenty years or so. They are described in an article in The Economist as constituting “a genre that is changing and developing into something of a cult: obituaries as entertainment.”3 Prior to the 1980s, they were “as solemn as the classified death notices that accompanied them. But since the mid-1980s they have become a source of daily fascination and delight.” From the 1960s onward as the British press became more intrusive in its reporting on the living, these habits extended to the coverage of the dead as well—admittedly “still moderated by a degree of reserve .” In the mid-1980s, “when a general, structural upheaval overtook the British quality press, provoking sharp new competition for market share and a search for editorial edge, the unexploited potential of obituaries as a source of human interest was recognized, and the obituarists came into their own” (64). Thus British (unsigned) newspaper obituaries are no longer limited to the rich and the famous. They have extended their coverage to include “circus Obituaries across Cultures 23 performers, jazz musicians, squires, poets, eccentrics and rogues” (64). Their style is described as being “anecdotal, discursive, yet elegantly concise; learned, touching, and, in a kindly way, often extraordinarily funny” (64...


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