Image by Jonathon Brown.
The grave concept of the e-bituary.
There are some things I’m not sure I’ll ever get comfortable with. Dame Helen Mirren as a sex symbol, for instance, or the fact that that Nazi Obelix Nick Griffin is a Cambridge graduate.
But when it comes to e-bituaries, the term morbid fascination has never been so appropriate.
I recently staggered across a website so intriguing, I was unable to fathom its significance or indeed its potential at first glance, and have felt the need to revisit several times since.
Allow me to introduce you to Obit-Mag.com. Obit is a commonly used abbreviation of obituary across the big blue pond. Fellow disciples of Curb Your Enthusiasm will remember the consequences of leaving Larry David in charge of a loved one’s obit.
But in an extraordinary interpretation of the opinion that the obituaries are one of the most enthusiastically read sections of newspapers, Obit are a dedicated team of writers, editors and researchers publishing content daily on the recently deceased to quench this grisly thirst.
As the chips are cashed in, fingers hit keyboards in Brooklyn, New York.The Obit Mag homepage is awash with photographs of the dead (before they expired of course, if you want snaps of corpses I’m sure there are sites for people like you), as well as quotes and discussions about the great inevitable. On the right hand side users are met with Obit Mag’s proudest asset; the Just Died list. Clicking on a name will fire up a short obituary and sometimes a photograph. At the time of penning this piece, the latest edition to the worm luncheon menu was Dan Duncan, an oil billionaire ‘known for his philanthropy and global hunting of exotic animals’. A touching homage.
“We challenge traditional stigma about discussion of death and dying,” boasts the website. “In doing this, we weave together art, prose and reflections on the famous, the firsts and the ordinary folks around us. We don’t believe there is any other forum like Obit.”
Too fucking right there isn’t.
However, the root of my interest in Obit isn’t the fact that this is a website dedicated to dead people. This is the internet – guaranteed to thrill, shock and shock again. There are few surprises online anymore, but in Obit Mag’s case, it’s the professionalism, the tone and the overall feeling that this is a genuine, well-oiled machine.
In a Western society we don’t really talk about death. We certainly don’t sing and dance about it. As a rule we conventionally tuck the obituaries into the back pages of newspapers, somewhere between pleas for companionship from lonely hermaphrodites and classified ads for equally unloved oboes. It’s a classic case of out of sight, out of mind. That’s why Obit Mag is so exceptional.
“Yes, we talk about death, which to some is a topic to be avoided at all costs,” Obit Mag managing editor Krishna Andavolu told me.
“But we’ve found that exploring our mortality can be an empowering process, one that makes life more worthwhile.”
He elaborated: “Death is a subject that touches every aspect of our lives. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Death, whether we like it or not, is a part of life.”
He speaks of death so openly and directly it’s somewhat unsettling.
It’s a whole new approach to man’s only certainty, but as 2009 showed us -Jackson, Swayze, Murphy, Carradine – news about famous people snuffing it is widely sought after.
Obit, though, is not just posthumous exposure for famous biters of the proverbial dust. I read a heartfelt post about how the closure of a greasy Chicago diner called Standees represented the last hoorah for a town barraged with trendy pasta eateries and how the author had enjoyed what would be his final meal with his dying brother in this dilapidated dive. I read Forever Fido, a dry witted account of a [former] dog owner who had struggled to see any profound meaning in the death of his mutt, despite an overwhelming social obligation to do so.
And now I’m hooked. But my fascination goes beyond all this. I wanted to know how they operate. So with my best indie journalist impression I fired punchy questions at Andavolu, asking whether team Obit sit around a conference table, sipping lattes and barking the names of dead folk at one another, divvying up the daily graft.
“Avery Rome, the editor-in-chief, Greg Miller, the marketing director and I all work remotely from one another, communicating daily by email and phone,” he answered.
“We conduct editorial meetings via conference call and discuss overall strategy and progress with Bob and Barbara Hillier, our founders, on a weekly basis. Some of our stories originate as ideas that our stable of writers pitch to us and some we assign.”
And the writers? “They are professional journalists who have worked for major dailies and magazines around the world.”
Now I know.
But I’m still left with a vacant chasm; a void which I had hoped the answers to my questions would fill. I remain wrought with intrigue as I consider the possibility that perhaps I’m just a late bloomer when it comes to the lure of the bitter end. Most kids I knew at school doodled skulls and bones in their copybooks or had ventured into the woods at least once to look for dead bodies. Not me.
I thought I was done with all things green and stiff after the late nineties, having eagerly watched all seven series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apparently not.
But much like Wes Bentley in American Beauty, grinning as his zoom lens focuses on the cold dead face of Kevin Spacey, I feel the compulsion to hold up this refreshing angle on death and dying and share it with you.
The dance of the dead has found its feet online, and my advice to you is that you find out about Obit, before Obit finds out about you…