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How to write the perfect obituary

Benson the Carp and angler Tom Lindfield
Image caption England's "best-loved fish": Benson the carp, who was caught 63 times over a 13-year period

The New York Times was sharply criticised when its obituary of a rocket scientist began by mentioning her "mean beef stroganoff". It was rewritten. The story holds lessons for obituary writers - but also illustrates the complexities of their art.

One of those at the New York Times engaging in a post mortem investigation into the controversial obituary of Yvonne Brill was the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan. She spoke to obituaries editor William McDonald, who, she says in her blog, had never imagined that it would be seen as sexist.

He said the opening references to her being a good cook, wife and mother were "an effective setup for the 'aha' of the second paragraph", which revealed that Brill was an important scientist.

Sullivan disagrees. The obituary undervalued Brill's "groundbreaking scientific work" by placing so much emphasis on her domestic life, she writes.

"If Yvonne Brill's life was worth writing about because of her achievements, and all agree that it was, then the glories of her beef stroganoff should have been little more than a footnote."

But what about the idea of beginning an obituary with a puzzling statement, followed by an "aha" moment?

"Jokes like that don't really work in obituaries, unless the subject is a jokey character," says Nigel Starck, author of Life After Death, a history of obituaries.

"It surprised me that such a conservative newspaper would write an obit with such a trivial lead. The stroganoff could have been worked in later."

However, good obituarists agree that the goal is not just to provide an account of the subject's CV, but to convey their personality.

"You have to get over and communicate primarily what they are famous for, but you don't want a dry recitation of facts," says Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Harry de Quetteville.

"What makes reporting obits different from other reporting is that you will often throw in some elements of colour about their personal and family life just to introduce the reader to someone who might have been a great but rather anonymous figure."

Seen from this perspective, the "mean stroganoff" may have been a tempting line. But Ann Wroe, obituaries editor for the Economist, agrees with Sullivan and Starck that it had no place in the first paragraph.

"If someone is a great scientist or pianist that is what I will talk about," she says.

"Whether they can cook a good meal will come much further down. The art or science will always come at the top and I will leave the gender aside, unless they have had to fight all their lives because of it."

Going through a life chronologically is not her style either. She prefers themes, and looks for ways to illustrate the person's good and bad sides.

Both she and Starck like to work from autobiographies and interviews given by their subjects, "to get inside the head of the person" as Wroe puts it.

"I try and write it from their point of view. I use words they would have used," she says.

She adapted this approach for an obituary in 2009 of a huge female carp, called Benson, which had been caught and photographed over its 25-year lifespan by dozens of anglers in Britain.

"I decided to do it when it was a quiet summer week. I wrote it from the view point of the fish from the bottom of the muddy pond where she lived. It was great fun and I talked about the number of times she had posed with people," Wroe says.

De Quetteville points out that some people are much easier to write about than others.

"I think - and this is where the New York Times may have had trouble as well - that scientists are very difficult to write about, partly because it's very hard to get your head around what they're doing," he says.

"So the search to introduce that human element into what can be extremely complicated work is always uppermost in your mind when you're trying to write an obituary."

Similarly, Starck - who has written obituaries for British, American and Australian publications - says academics and business leaders can be hard work.

"You try and bring out the human face. What they liked to do away from the office and to drink," he says.

Wroe, in turn, adds politicians, musicians and artists to the list of tricky cases. Politicians because of the often chronological nature of their careers and the others because it is difficult to get across in words what they did.

"With the baritone and conductor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I put a little snatch of a Schubert song in the obit so that those who knew his music would get it in their minds. I also put poetry in for poets," she says.

The New York Times's obituary of Yvonne Brill is certainly not the first piece of its kind to cause a controversy.

Wroe's obituary of Osama Bin Laden was another. But she defends the approach she took.

"I think we should do bad and good people. I wanted to show there was a human side to him and that he was not just a monster," she says.

"There is also a family man who took his children to the beach, who went out hunting and liked eating yoghurt and dates. I wrote it from his point of view and his growing crusade to kill as many infidels as possible, as he saw it.

"Our American readers didn't appreciate that."

And the author of the New York Times' obituary of Brill is also unrepentant.

"I wouldn't do anything differently," he told Margaret Sullivan.

Writing obituaries may not be rocket science, but it can certainly be a tricky business.

Harry de Quetteville was interviewed on the BBC World Service programme World Update.

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