Of Obituaries and Mandela


Even as Mandela lies in hospital hooked to life support systems,  print media organisations all over the world have already written his obituary. This is not sheer wickedness but standard practice. Haven’t you ever wondered how well researched and extensive obituaries of public figures are available even while news of their death is still ‘breaking?’ So a furtive look into the computer folders of media editors around the world will give one a glimpse of the life and times of Madiba, baring the all important line stating the date of his death.

Speaking of obituaries, there was once a case of mistaken identity. In the late 19th century, Alfred Nobel, a Swiss Chemist, business man and entrepreneur, who invented the dynamite and gelignite, and made a fortune from explosive and armaments was fortunate (yes, it’s good fortune) to read his own obituary in the newspapers. The editors had made a mistake and written his obituary instead of his brother’s who had died.

Nobel, obviously sitting in his patio with a glass of vintage in hand, was shocked to read what people thought of him. The obituary, captioned, The merchant of death is dead, said, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Though the error was finally spotted and Alfred apologized to, Mr. Nobel got a hint into how people really felt about him. Most importantly, he resolved to mend his ways and that birthed the Nobel Prizes as Alfred who had no children willed his vast fortune to the award of the prizes for outstanding work in various fields. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize, which has become the marquee category “is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity.” And, that helps to reduce standing armies.

Inspite of the French newspaper in Cannes making an error over Nobel’s death, newspaper and magazines still take the publication of obituaries of public figures seriously. Organs like the Economist and New York Times have raised the writing of obituaries to an art, and I must confess they will outdo themselves in the event of Mandela’s passing. For such media whose home governments once thought Mandela a socialist and terrorist, it would be an intriguing read.

Most Western based newspapers have regular obituary columns (not anecdotes) and use it to celebrate the lives of not only public figures like politicians and celebrities but also lesser known individuals who have made a resounding impact in their niches: actors, scientists, authors, teachers, etcetra.

In a country where we fashionably forget ‘heroes past’ or fall foul of giving national honours only to people active in certain prestigious categories, newspapers and magazines could pay more attention to obituaries and scour the nation to eulogise departed men and women of repute and acclaim, presenting an unbiased, uncoloured portrait of a person’s life in a thousand words or more.

Such a column if raised to quasi-editorial status, non-commercialized and given a pride of place can, if not bag a Pulitzer, raise the awareness of the average citizen to the need to celebrate ‘our heroes past,’ aside from archiving permanently the life and times of such notables.

For Madiba, the ‘father of Africa’ and inspiration to humanity, it is not yet adieu.



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