Obituaries: the future

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.6998.143 (Published 15 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:143
  1. Stephen Lock, Formerly editor,
  2. Richard Smith
  1. BMJ Editor BMJ London WC1H 9JR

    Developing by evolution not revolution

    Obituaries are one of the most popular sections of the BMJ. The many letters that we received in response to our last editorial on obituaries and the high response rate to our questionnaire on the subject confirmed their popularity.1 2 The letters and the answers to the questionnaire have helped us consider how to respond to the central problem: how to publish rapidly in a limited number of pages an ever increasing number of obituaries, preserving their accuracy and usefulness and increasing their readability. We think that we can achieve this through evolution rather than revolution.

    Many diverse opinions were expressed by our 110 correspondents and 646 respondents to our survey sent to 1070 doctors, but some things emerged very clearly: most readers want obituaries kept, almost all were keen that we keep space for “ordinary” doctors, and a third wanted more attention paid to the subjects' failings. Consistently respondents thought that shorter obituaries would be better, and they strongly preferred a single paragraph: many would also accept, however, that the section should be flexible, with a mixture of death notices, short paragraphs, and longer accounts.

    The major difference between the obituaries and other sections of the journal is that virtually every contribution is published. What's more, editing is mostly restricted simply to shortening. Elsewhere in the journal peer review eliminates all but 15% of submitted manuscripts, which are then edited to make them as clear and interesting as possible. To institute such a drastic “gatekeeper” approach to the obituaries would be cruel and unfair. Yet we learn a lot from the best newspapers, particularly the Independent, which has greatly developed the status of the obituary section. It pioneered such welcome features as vivid and frank assessments of people's failings as well as their achievements, and in their revitalised form obituaries have become still more popular features in newspapers. Even the international publication the Economist has introduced them.3

    Above all, as elsewhere in any publication, the readers' interests are paramount. Everybody sympathises with the bereaved, but the proper forum for condolences is the private letter. Obituaries are not the place for expressions of sympathy or the honeyed cliches that currently give the sameness to so many accounts. Often major achievements can be covered in one or two sentences: it is the events behind these that may justify a longer account. And “top” or “famous” doctors should not necessarily get a longer obituary than “ordinary” doctors, whose lives may make much more interesting reading when well written. Every case has to be judged on its merits.

    Starting in the autumn, we propose applying to the obituary section some of the approaches used elsewhere in the journal. Each submission for the obituary section will be assessed by a small editorial committee (chaired by Stephen Lock, formerly editor of the BMJ, and including outside practising doctors), who will recommend not whether it should be published but the format in which it will appear. (We will very soon be advertising for doctors to join the committee, but anybody interested could write to us now.) We will publish obituary notices (of about 50 words) of everybody, and we will hope to publish these within weeks of the death. Currently, obituaries are published for only about a third of British doctors and many months after their deaths. The delay is caused partly by people taking a long time to submit obituaries and partly by the large numbers of longer obituaries. We hope now that people will send us obituary notices within days of death. In addition, we will try to identify—through death notices in the newspapers, BMA records, and other means—deaths of doctors; we will then gently prompt relatives to send us an obituary notice. In this way we should be able to mark the death of many more doctors than at the moment and more quickly. Our aim is to clear our current backlog by the end of the autumn.

    Obituary notices should include full name, date of birth, cause of death (if possible), and a short summary—in one or two sentences—of major achievements inside and outside medicine. Many families will feel that publication of such an obituary notice will suffice, but we will also be pleased to receive longer obituaries for consideration. Publication of an obituary notice will not preclude publication of a longer obituary, but we hope ideally to receive the longer obituary at almost the same time as the obituary notice: we can then publish longer obituaries within weeks of death. Sometimes an obituary notice will not be necessary if we receive the longer obituary within days of the death.

    We will be publishing soon guidance on how to write a good obituary, but the essence of what we want is that the obituary should be well written and contain light and shade. We have encouraged self written obituaries and accepted those written by family members, but the best assessments are probably not self written and usually come from outside the family. Sidney Lee, a distinguished editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, warned against hero worship and family, official, and ethical bias. The best obituaries portray people as they really were and as they would have wished to be remembered. That is what makes an obituary section compulsive reading.