One of the first things I noticed living in England is that British obituaries are just a little different from what I expect to read in America. An obituary will typically include all the expected details about the deceased’s contributions to his or her profession and surviving relatives. But over here an obituary will far more often also include some unexpected racy detail or short-coming that all his acquaintances probably knew or suspected, but would often be glossed over in other cultures.
My introductory British obit, for instance, discussed the individual’s academic contribution, but added “he could have done so much more if he had not been an alcoholic for so many years…”
This might sound somewhat tasteless to American sensibilities, but when my sister died in her mid-forties, several of her sibs got together and wrote a private “British obituary” for her. A sanitized politically correct version is the one that was published in the papers. But just telling the truth among ourselves was cathartic and helped us deal with a loss that we found devastating.
I was reminded yesterday about this particular British trait reading an obituary of an English civil servant. Serving in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980’s, he decided that something had to be done about the quality of reports being written by the staff. It’s important, he argued. Even something as simple as an apostrophe can completely change the meaning of what one intended to say. For instance, he pointed out, during World War II, one report omitted the apostrophe following the word “Germans.” The result read “Germans push bottle up rear of French offensive.”
I know this story because it was included in his obituary.
My husband said he always did have a wonderful sense of humour. (And of course, the British have a sense of humour; Americans – the lucky ones, anyway – have a sense of humor.)