Sandra Martin calls writing obituaries "the most interesting and often the most terrifying job in any newspaper." Martin is the feature obituary writer for the Globe and Mail, and she has recently published a book, Working the Dead Beat: Fifty Lives That Changed Canada, based on her work.
"I like to say that death is only the occasion for writing about the life. So that obituaries are not depressing, black-bunting kind of announcements of someone's death. They're an analysis and a recap of somebody's life," Martin said in a recent interview on CBC's Fresh Air. "So that's why it's interesting, especially if you're trying to set it in the context of the times in which the person lived."
Why, then, is it also terrifying? "You always seem to hear about somebody dying at the end of the day, and you have to do it in such a hurry," Martin told host Mary Ito. "So it's terrifying because you have to learn the life, you have to find people to talk about the person, and you can't be rude to them because you're talking with them at a moment that's very sad for them. It's a moment filled with grief, and you have to be aware of that. And then you have to write it up really quickly and not get the second wife's first name wrong or any of that stuff. So it's terrifying."
To Martin, the particulars of a person's life are revealing of the era in which they lived. In Working the Dead Beat, she set out "to produce, to create, a mosaic of modern Canadian history using the lives of people who died between 2000 and 2010, the first decade of this century, but who lived throughout the last one. "
The oldest person in the book is a Chinese man who came to Canada as a boy. "He was born in China in 1900, he came here when he was 12, and he lived long enough to get redress from the Canadian government and to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologize for the head tax and the Exclusion Act," Martin said.
She also cited Bertha Wilson, the first female judge on the Supreme Court of Canada, who came here from Scotland. "It was a time when people laughed that she would want to go to law school. She became a lawyer, and then she was appointed to the Supreme Court just as the Charter was coming in," Martin said. She added that Wilson had a reputation for having 'a persuasive pen. She was a beautiful writer. She wrote many of those Charter decisions based on a woman's right to choose, abortion, [and] using spousal abuse as a defence in manslaughter, all those sort of things."
Obituaries can sometimes be front page news, as when Pierre Berton died. Because she knew he wasn't well, Martin was already working on his obituary. But when she got a phone call at 6 o'clock one evening that he had died, she said, "I knew this is a huge life." It had competition for the Globe's front page because "it happened to be the day that President George Bush was coming to Ottawa for his first visit with Prime Minister Harper." There was much discussion about how the story should be handled, and then finally one of the front-page editors said, "'This is bigger than Bush.' And I knew it was, and I was so glad to hear that, because we had lost a huge cultural icon."
Asked how she handles aspects of a life that may be distasteful to family or friends, Martin said that her first duty is to readers. "I am empathetic to the family's grief, and I'm privileged to be able to talk to people at a moment that is so traumatic for them. But like any journalist, I have to put that aside and write the piece about the person that I have concluded is the right piece, and it has to be based on research."
Her aim, she said, is "to write a portrait of the person as he or she was. As Oliver Cromwell said so many hundreds of years ago, 'warts and all.' That's what it is."
Martin sometimes knows the people she's writing about, having interviewed them. She described her encounter with distinguished actor William Hutt. They met when he was taking his final curtain call as Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. When she heard he was ill, she said, "I phoned him and I asked him if I could talk to him about his life for an eventual obituary. And he said that he was dying, and that he had his death project and he was the manager of it, but if I wanted to come, I should come soon."
She described their meeting as "one of the most moving experiences of my life. He was in this world, but he seemed to have a foot in the next one, whatever that world is. He was lucid, he was beautifully eloquent, but he was clearly not very well," she said. At the end of their conversation, he asked what she intended to do with the material. Martin tried to keep things light, telling him, "You know, I'm not going to end up writing this for five, 10 years, and maybe by then this moment that we have shared will have evaporated." He smiled in response, and kissed her on the cheek. But he died just three days later, unexpectedly. It turned out to be the last interview he gave.
"People around those who are dying are often very squeamish about talking about death. Not the people who are dying," Martin said. "They know what is happening to them, and they like talking about their lives, and thinking about them. Especially if somebody is going to have done the basic research, you know, known the facts, and then asked them about certain things. So I find it just the most human of journalism, and also, if you're lucky and you work hard, maybe the most humane."