Sunday, May 02, 2010

Tips for getting noticed when you're gone

I heard a very amusing talk on death a while ago, given by Globe obituary writer Sandra Martin. Among other things, she discussed how she picked the people she wrote about.
Would she pick you if you died tomorrow? It’s an intriguing thing to ponder, should you be the type who likes to reflect on the criteria for leaving a splashy national obit behind.
I don’t write obituaries, but I do read them, along with the media coverage that certain deaths tend to generate. I’ve spotted a few surefire strategies for getting noticed after you die.
Be a celebrity. If you’re a Margaret Atwood or a Gordon Lightfoot, or even that friendly looking guy from Corner Gas, you’re going to get a decent obit in virtually every major paper in the country. If you don’t make it to the national stage, no worries - be a celebrity in your own hometown.
Be a humanitarian. We love remembering people who do good things. Stephen Lewis, Romeo Dallaire, Craig Kielburger - they’re in.
Be a scoundrel, or a monster. We also love remembering those who do bad things. Garden-variety criminals need not apply, though; this category is for the charming psychopathic rogues and the truly heinous. No need to worry that Clifford Olson’s death will slip by unnoticed, or Ian Thow’s either.
Be “first” at something. The first monkey in space, the first aboriginal hockey player, the first woman to file a sex-harassment suit against her boss - such acts make you a permanent part of history. We will remember you, at least for a day or two right after you die.
Be interesting. This one is harder to define. We all like to think of ourselves as interesting, but to qualify for a big media response you really have to kick this one up a notch. For instance, you know Renee Richards is guaranteed a ton of coverage when she dies, because what’s not interesting about a transgendered professional tennis player who became a renowned eye surgeon?
Be a hero. To die doing something perceived as noble is guaranteed to get headlines. You’ll have noticed, for instance, that all Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty get written about in the media.
As for the rest of us, anyone who dies in the midst of a “heroic act” gets much more media coverage than if death comes in more ordinary fashion. The boy who drowns after diving into the river to save his dog gets a feature, the boy who just tumbles in on his own gets a couple of paragraphs.
Be local. If your name transcends jurisdiction, go ahead and die anywhere in the world. The media will find you. But for those of us whose name has little resonance beyond our yards, your best bet when you die is to live somewhere that people can recall you having lived a very long time.
That is, unless you already fit in a category I’ve noted, in which case your home town will probably remember you even after you move away. There will always be a spot in the Ladysmith Chronicle to observe the passing of Pamela Anderson.
Be young. There’s something so wrong about the death of a young person that it generally attracts media attention if it’s at all public - a car accident, a violent death, a drowning. The one exception to this is death by suicide, which in fact is the second leading cause of death among young people but rarely mentioned in the media.
Be extremely old. Why, when I was a young reporter, you could live to be 100 certain in the knowledge that you’d be getting your picture in the paper. How times have changed. Living for a century is old hat now; if you want public recognition of your passing, you’re going to want to make it past 110 these days.
Be rich and powerful. This is a bit like being a celebrity, but not always. Rich and powerful people often keep a low profile during their lifetime, and it’s only when you read their obituary that you realize they owned everything in the world.
Build a weirder mousetrap. The guy who invented the “Magic Fingers” vibrating bed got an obit. So did the guy who invented Teflon (he “slid away,” the headline opined), and the fellow who owned Britain’s last fairground boxing booth. Get creative.
Be a journalist. I used to roll my eyes at the newsroom tradition of doing mandatory obits on anyone who’d ever worked in the business. Now I’m counting on it.

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