Imagine that, over the course of your life, you become somewhat well-known for something.
Maybe you’re a rockstar or a politician or a rally driver whose wife avenged your affair by cutting holes in 32 of your suits. Well if you died tomorrow (sorry), Damian Arnold would find out.
“The first thing I’ll do when I wake up in the morning is check to see who’s dead,” says the longest-serving full-time obituary writer at The Times.
After 15 years in the game, he’s developed some helpful habits. He’ll look at the main news agencies, other papers and, of course, WikiDeaths. He’ll have his toast or an egg or – if he’s feeling particularly virtuous – chopped fruit and yoghurt and during all of this, he’ll be thinking about you. Who were you? What is the story of your life?
Sometimes by train and sometimes by bike, he’ll get into The Times’s London Bridge office at around 10am. On his way there, he’ll keep thinking of you. A few phrases might start to take shape and maybe an opening line or a structure.
You’re probably one of three obituaries he’s writing that week. If you’re the lead that day, you’re most likely getting 1,500–2,000 words. The next level down from that is about 1,100, and then if you’re in “the basement” on the next page then it’s around 800 – but hey, you’re still getting an obituary in a national newspaper.
Who gets a stock obituary?
That decision on the word length is usually an indication you’ve led a good and noteworthy life, but not always – after all, serial killers often get obituaries. Given how many upstanding individuals don’t make the cut, some people find the dedication of precious broadsheet pages to the commemoration of murderers baffling. Infuriating, even.
But Arnold thinks there’s value in reflecting on such lives that loom so prominently in the national consciousness. Offering the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, as an example, he argues that the story of the murders gripped the nation’s attention, and thus warranted the obituary that the paper wrote upon his death in 2020 — despite the complaints it generated.
“There were aspects of that story, like the fact that the police really bungled the investigation, that are interesting and delve into British culture somehow. And as much as anything else, people would be curious – who was this person? Why did they commit all those crimes?”
All of this early-morning decision-making and structuring and writing is assuming you’re not one of 7,000-odd “stock” obituaries – ones they write in advance – on file. These are updated regularly, but if someone in Arnold’s team hears that you’re on your last legs, you might be jumped up the queue.
A few days before speaking to Arnold, news broke that Jimmy Carter had gone into hospice care. When the obituarists at The Times found out, they chose him some photos, subbed his copy and laid it all out – he’s getting a double-page spread.
You, somewhat well-known you, might be irked by this idea – that before you die, The Times has already decided what your life has been.
Some people are so apprehensive about the content of their obituary that they’ll call up and try to “help” write it. Arnold says it’s a fairly common occurrence, and, though he won’t name any names, it’s often people who are very well-known. “Put it this way,” he says. “It happens quite a lot, and it tends to be the sort of slightly pompous, self-important people who are quite concerned about their legacy.”
It’s always a strict “no thank you” from Arnold to these people. Not that the stock obituaries are set in stone; Arnold’s always looking for details that might illustrate your specific brand of you-ness. Recently, he was at a book launch and got speaking to a prominent politician. That politician told him a great story about his career and afterwards he thought: “I must add that to their obituary.” Much as he might like to at times, it’s a muscle he can’t really switch off.
The right way to die – according to an obituary writer
If you’re not on the books already, you might have the good grace to die early in the morning. Or late at night. And ideally, if you can, with some warning. Especially if you’re a big deal.
When the legendary cricketer Shane Warne died of a sudden heart attack at age 52 on an afternoon in March last year, they had nothing on him. “That was a pretty stressful one,” says Arnold. At 2.30 pm, he was tasked with pulling together 2,000 words that would adequately convey the not-uneventful story of this much-beloved man’s life by 6:30 pm – the usual obituary deadline. “Lucky for me, I love cricket.”
Let’s say you’re not one of the stock obituaries. You’ve died, and you’re somewhat well-known for something and they don’t have yours ready to go.
Arnold will ask the cuttings library to send him any profiles or interviews with you. He’ll scour all of these for the necessary details – when you were born, what your parents did – but, for more than that: colour. Little anecdotes to weave into the stuff you’re better known for – Betty Boothroyd took up paragliding in her sixties.
While he’s waiting for the cuttings to come back, he’ll probably contact your family. Maybe your spouse or your children. And if Arnold’s experience is anything to go by, they’ll be fairly willing to talk. He thinks there are two reasons for this – one is that, in most cases, they’ll be quite pleased to hear that you will be commemorated on the pages of The Times.
The other reason your loved ones will be willing to talk, he thinks, is that in the hours and perhaps days after your death, they will have been inundated with calls from people offering some mild variation on the theme of being so sorry for their loss. And while Arnold might do that bit too, he’ll also ask them lots of questions. Specific questions, about you and what you were like.
What were some funny things that you did? What should people know about you that they won’t already? And they’ll be glad, amid all the apologies to which they must politely reply with a “thank you”, to have the chance to talk about you. Arnold enjoys giving people that chance.
He also likes calling people up because it’s where he tends to get the best stuff; the most illuminating details. Often, he says, he’ll find a moment that really set a person’s life in motion – maybe they were ill as a child and spent a year in hospital, and in that time they started reading loads about a certain subject and it became their vocation.
‘Everybody has an interesting story. You just have to get to it’
Arnold recently wrote the obituary of the architect John Thompson who pioneered the concept of community architecture – when residents are allowed to play a genuinely participatory role in the development of their estates. Speaking to his wife, Nova, Arnold learned that when Thompson was a child, his grandparents ran a butcher’s in Warwickshire, and they’d give him off-cuts of meat and tell him to go to the dilapidated estate nearby and give them to people who weren’t as lucky as them. That gave him an early insight into the importance of community and he went on to build a career around advocating for it.
That detail was a particularly exciting discovery for Arnold, who has a keen interest in urban planning. His first obituary for The Times, written in 2008, was of a Dutch traffic engineer called Hans Monderman. He wrote and submitted it on spec while working for a civil engineering magazine because he thought Monderman’s life warranted commemoration in a national newspaper. They liked it so much that they published it and encouraged him to send in more, and things went from there.
But even if your life doesn’t initially excite Arnold in the way that a Dutch traffic engineer’s did, “there’s really no excuse for them to be boring”, he says. “Everybody has an interesting story. You just have to get to it.” That’s why he likes the job so much; that variety. The opportunity to be “constantly dipping into the recent history of this country, its culture, its politics”.
It’s a good thing he’s not in it for the acclaim – The Times obituaries go unsigned. This isn’t a universal practice. Obituary writers at the Guardian, for example, get bylines.
But Arnold thinks the anonymity is important because it allows him to prioritise telling someone’s story over saying whatever will please their loved ones. He’s not disinterested in that: “Some of the feedback I’ve had really makes the job worthwhile. I’m not doing it to make them happy, I’m doing it to write a good obituary. But it’s still nice if they like it.”
So much so, Arnold admits, that the possibility of your death might make him a little excited.
In 2015, news broke that former Blue Peter presenter John Noakes had gone missing. Arnold had written that one already and was quite proud of how it turned out. Then Noakes – to Arnold’s relief, as he insists – was found. “I was really happy, obviously in that sense, but also a little part of me was slightly disappointed. It’s a bit… well anyway, a couple of years after that he did die. So it did see the light of day.”
It might seem odd to be that invested in, that driven by, writing about death. That he’ll enjoy writing about yours. But the way Arnold sees it, there only tend to be one or two lines in an obituary about death. For the rest of it, he’ll be writing about your life.
“I think it’s given me a positive perspective on death,” he says. “And on human nature and life; because in so many of the obituaries I get to write, people have had such amazing lives.” Arnold pauses here for a moment.
“I’m slightly in awe of them, you know? That somebody could fit all of that into their life, or be such a good person. It makes you quite optimistic, in that sense. You feel that all is not quite lost in the world if there are all these good people around.”
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