Richard Pearson, obituaries editor of The Washington Post since 1988, was shot dead by a jealous husband. He was 54.
Actually, he wasn’t. But he always said that was how he would expect his obituary to begin. In fact, Pearson died of pancreatic cancer. His last bylined obituary was that of the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, whom he described as “unquestionably evil and perversely fascinating”.
Five months ago Pearson, a portly figure, spoke to the fifth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference in Las Vegas, USA. There he explained his concern about the lack of diversity on his pages. “We need more Arabs and Moslems,” he said. “We don’t reflect our community.”
He was echoing a similar sentiment he had made in an online discussion of the art of obituary writing five years earlier: “Families may tend to call more about dad, who had a public life, than mom, who made his life possible,” he said.
According to Pearson, the first lesson of obituary writing is to make sure the person is dead. “No matter how good the obit is, there will be complaints if he is not,” he said. He was quick to point out, however, that although everyone dies in the first paragraph of his articles, “I console myself with the thought that there are relatively few complaints from people I write about”. On another occasion, he reminded his audience that, no matter what else was happening in the news, he had his own agenda to follow. “God is my assignment editor,” he said.
Although he enjoyed what he called the “London school” of obituary writing, Pearson never set foot outside the USA. But that didn’t stop him feeding his readers a regular diet of British aristocrats and rogues.
Quizzed about this, he simply replied with a nonchalant shrug: “Give the public what they want.”
Like many American newspapers, The Washington Post typically runs “local” obituaries, the lives of those who have lived most or all of their lives in the area, be they sandwich man or the barber to four presidents, alongside the national and international figures. Pearson dreaded the occasions when those in the latter category were elevated to the front pages of his paper. “Suddenly 72 editors descend with ‘helpful’ suggestions,” he told the Obituary Writers Conference.
Pearson was born in Chicago, brought up in rural Illinois, and from the 1960s lived in Washington. As a teenager he was a champion chicken breeder, speaking in later life of his “pulletzer prize”. He remained well informed about poultry all his life. He was widely known as Noodles, from an occasion when, as an undergraduate, he was accused by a wrestling coach of having the energy of “wet noodles”.
He joined the Post in 1971, moving to the obituaries desk in 1977, thinking “obits might be fun until anyone offered me a real job”. There he helped the paper’s first obituaries editor, J Y Smith, to create a team of six writers.
When Carolyn Gilbert of New Mexico set up the International Association of Obituarists, Pearson was one of the first major editors to recognise the value of the organisation.
This year he was joined by Andrew McKie, obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph.
Richard Pearson is survived by his widow, Kay, and a son and a daughter.