Education And Debate

How to Do It: Write an obituary for the BMJ

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.7006.680 (Published 09 September 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:680
  1. Stephen Lock, obituaries editora
  1. a BMJ, London WC1H 9JR

    “In every individual,” wrote Dostoevsky in From the House of the Dead, “there is a spark of the Divine.” It should be the aim of every obituary to convey this spark to a reader who has never known the subject. Yet how rarely is this achieved; instead the writer falls back on prolixity, cliche, and a curriculum vitae. There is little idea of this subject's uniqueness, of how things would have been different had he or she never lived.

    This is not to sneer at obituary writers or at what they produce. They have an exceptionally difficult task, and the reasons for their failure are self evident. Almost inevitably inexperienced writers confronted with an emotional task and a short deadline, they find that they knew the subject far less well than they thought. And almost inevitably they then turn to and follow published obituaries which, instead of conveying uniqueness, have relied on sentiments more appropriate to a 19th century tombstone than to a 20th century journal.

    Whether conventional or justified, however, condolences for relatives are best put into a personal letter.1 Like other features in the journal, the BMJ's obituaries are primarily for readers who want their attention held in the same way as elsewhere and, as recent correspondence has confirmed,2 read them avidly. Nevertheless, for some time the editor has been faced with a paradox: whereas non-obituaries undergo rigorous peer review and have a high rejection rate, until recently obituaries did not, and most of them were published with only shortening. Given the continuing large increase in the number of doctors, the inevitable happened, with a heavy backlog of accumulated obituaries, some of them relating to doctors who had died several months previously.

    Editorial selection committee

    What is the solution to the “problem” of the obituaries? To apply the drastic …

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