Life Sentence

January 4, 2013

At the end of every year various media outlets produce a list of noteworthy people who died during the year. Usually they also had a story about each person at the time their death occurred. Once when a celebrity died and extensive obituaries were everywhere I said to a friend how amazing it was that they could produce them so quickly. And my friend told me that most media outlets keep a "death file", so that when a famous person dies they can put something together and release it in a hurry, sometimes in as little as a few minutes after the person croaked. Maybe it’s practicality, or maybe they got the idea from P.T. Barnum, who asked newspapers to print his obituary while he was still alive so he could read it. With impeccable timing he made his great egress a week later.

But I wonder who has to keep the death file. It must be pretty depressing to have the job of updating information on someone, knowing you’re only going to use it when that person dies. It must be even more depressing when it’s someone who’s been out of the limelight for a long time. In 1964, before he retired from show business, Tom Lehrer remarked, "It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years." If it was a sobering thought then it must be even more sobering that it’s a joke that has to be updated annually, and that on April 9, 2013, Lehrer will have outlived Mozart by half a century. But I hope Mr. Lehrer doesn’t dwell on it, although for anybody who’s ever been in the spotlight it must be in the back of their mind that their death will probably make the news even if they haven’t in decades. Not to get morbid, but famous people must be reminded of their impending demise on a regular basis. We all know Mark Twain’s famous quote about rumors of his death, but in the back of his mind he must have known there’d come a time when they weren’t just rumors.

And in the mid-1980’s MTV had a game show called Remote Control, with a category "Dead Or Alive". Contestants would be given the name of a famous person and they’d have to answer whether the person was dead or alive. Jon Bon Jovi once came up, and the contestant said, "He’s dead." In fact he was sitting in the audience, and, I assume, very much alive, since he still is. Still I hope no one dwells on the fact that they’ll have to cash in their chips at some point and instead leaves it to whoever’s keeping his death file. And keeping those files has got to be such a depressing job I assume it has to go to whoever’s lowest in the office hierarchy. At newspapers I guess it goes to those who used to be called "cub reporters", who are now called "interns". There was a time when cub reporters were assigned to write obituaries, because newspaper editors were always smart enough to trust a sensitive subject like death with someone who had no idea what they were doing. I once heard a story about a cub reporter whose first obituary ran to more than a thousand words. His editor told him to cut it. He cut it down to five hundred words. The editor asked him to cut it again. He cut it to two-hundred and fifty words. The editor told him to cut it again, so he wrote, "Mr. Jones looked up the elevator shaft to see if the elevator was coming. It was. He was forty-two." It’s a funny story, and I wouldn’t mind having an obituary like that, even though the only thing the reporter considered newsworthy was the man’s death. Even if he didn’t do anything worth reporting before that he still lived, and all the focus shouldn’t be put on death since it’s merely the period at the end of our life sentence. Actually a story I like better is one of Oscar Wilde’s last words. The story of his last words is a reminder that Wilde was a very smart, very funny writer who today is more famous for what he wrote than for a terrible scandal that ended his career and probably shortened his life, unlike today when most people begin their careers with terrible scandals. Anyway, the story goes that Wilde lay dying in a Paris hospital where he’d been complaining about the wallpaper for hours. Finally he said, "Either the wallpaper goes or I do."

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