Classical Rhetoric and the Art of the Obituary

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 1.04.49 pmThe funeral of Kim Jong-Il. Photo credit: The 4th Media

The obituary is not about lamenting the dead; it’s about celebrating life. It’s not about describing the gratuities of an ending; but about resurrecting the dead in a kind of living. The primary goal of the obituary is to appraise a life; to tell you whether it was well-lived or ill-lived; to encapsulate in a few hundred words the pith of someone’s existence; it should mark the depths of despondency or the crests of brilliance that lure us to this person, that make them special.

In terms of classical rhetoric, obituaries are categorised under epideictic discourse. The crux of this discourse is to praise or to censure somebody; it’s about ceremony and display. You witness epidictic discourse when you hear a eulogy, or when you hear a graduation speech. You witness it at weddings and birthday parties when an embarrassing uncle stands up, his breath groggy, to say that you are the most splendid nephew or niece.

Most of the time, these speeches or writings don’t serve a practical function. Unlike an essay or an advertisement, they don’t strive to persuade you of a point of view or to adopt a cause. They don’t urge you to wage war, or feed the hungry, or build a hospital. That is not their primary goal. But sometimes they can wittingly or unwittingly motivate you.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 1.08.19 pmPresident Obama delivering Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy. Photo credit Carolyn Kaster

President Barack Obama has delivered several this year, one was for Reverend Pinckney, who was a victim of a shooting-spree. After praising the reverend, Obama tries to persuade his audience that this tragedy unites the nation, rather than divides it; that the United States should enforce strict gun control laws, rather than put power in the hands of madmen.

In a similar sense, the obituary has primary foci, to relate and comment on a life. But sometimes there surface motivations: describing exemplary life might motivate us to be more humane. On the other hand, if someone’s flaws are publicised, we can learn from them, and avoid them.

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Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric

Major works on rhetoric in the ancient world discussed epideictic discourse: some analysed orations of the time; others presented a manual for ideas and styles. One text that mentioned how you might heighten praise of someone was Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric.

You could:

  • show that they were the first or only one to do something

  • show that they triumphed in hard circumstances

  • show that they succeeded not once but often

  • show that other people have also praised them

  • compare them to other great men or women.

These simple tips hold the secret to enhancement.

Notice that these small devices of amplifying praise surface in these extracts from Daily Telegraph obituaries:

  • “Bess Myerson was the first and only Jewish woman to win the Miss America beauty pageant”

  • ‘”Cockie” was one of the last links with life between the wars in East Africa”

  • “Bruno … was one of the best-known clowns in Europe … over a career spanning half a century …”

Although these are mere crumbs in long, creative lives, they are the best crumbs. You can see how they stress that their people were in small company, or how they worked hard for a long time. Being the opening sentence, these also show why an obituary is warranted; why this person deserves to be written about, and memorialised.

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Tilly Devine

Not all obituaries admire the deceased. In a delightful find, I read Tilly Devine’s obituary which was published in a 1970s Sydney paper. Devine was a gangster, and portrayed not too long ago as in the television series “Underbelly: Razor”.

Her obituary was so full of vitriol, it out her on par with dictators. It called Tilly Devine “a vicious, grasping, high-priestess of savagery, venery, obscenity and whoredom”. It labelled her “old, ugly, feeble, friendless … one of the most frightening creatures spewed up by the razor gangs”. The writer employs the rhetorical commonplace of comparison, and shows that Devine’s wickedness eclipsed other gangsters’ who dwelt in her shadow.

Because of strict defamation laws, and because of repercussions of such excoriating words, today it is rare to find published work that openly stains somebody’s name. But nothing would deny the opposite; nothing would deny a profusion of high praise.

Even so, cruel obituaries are infinitely better than nice ones.

And obituaries of big personalities are even finer.

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Kim Jong Il’s funeral. Photo credit: The 4th Media

When Kim Jong-Il died a few years ago, obituaries for the North Korean tyrant appeared from the Guardian, from the New York Times, from The Australian, from all around the world. Most were factual, correct, and dull. But the Economist’s obituary was clever. It commandeered the dictator’s aggrandised self-image in order to ridicule him.

The writer informed his readers that Kim Jong-Il’s birth was “foretold by a swallow, accompanied by a double rainbow and a new star in the heavens”.

He lists accomplishments that would bowl over even the most phlegmatic of us, writing that “He learnt to walk in three weeks, to talk in eight; he wrote six operas and 1,500 books while a student”

Moreover, “Apart from being “the greatest writer who ever lived” and “greatest musical genius”, he was … the Glorious General from Heaven, the Guiding Star of the 21st Century, and more than 200 other things”.

The image Kim Jong-Il spun of himself through propaganda was farfetched and frankly bizarre; this obituary exploits it for comic effect.

In this study, I came across dizzying and affectionate tributes, as well as virulent and bitter sketches of real people. Some obits were written like eulogies brimming with anecdotes and grandiose praise. These were the most interesting rhetorically

But the most readily available and most widely read are in the papers and written in a journalistic, emotionless, factual style that is more robotic than human.

Nevertheless, traces of classical rhetoric exist in obituaries, even in those journalistic ones. It exists in how they elevate or debase somebody; in their stressing of virtues and vices; in the recollections and testimonies of those who were friends and family.

Finally, is the obituary, and classical rhetoric, dead? And will we be writing obituaries for them? I don’t think so. For this genre of writing helps us to understand and live, with remembering and grieving, dealing with times passed and people gone. And Classical Rhetoric is a crucial part of it.

Adapted from a Speech at the University of Adelaide, 2015.

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