Alex Beam talked to Jim Braude and Margery Eagan about his growing fascination with the obituary section.

Credit: Elliott Brown / Flickr

Alex Beam On The Careful Reading Of Obituaries

April 16, 2014

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam returned to Boston Public Radio for his regular Open Mic segment with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. This time, Beam talked about obituaries ("Irish sports pages") and what it means to read about and learn from the lives of the recently deceased.

Questions were edited for length and clarity. Beam's responses were edited where noted (...).

So this is how you're spending your time these days, reading obituaries?

My mother — God rest her soul — read the obituaries because there's so much important information in there. But I just assumed it could never apply to me. I have a column in tomorrow's paper that proceeds from this all-too-obvious point. I turned 60 fairly recently. There should be a threshold — they shouldn't be printing some of those obits!

People are dying really young — early fifties in some cases.

Fifty-seven, what's that about?

Tell us the great line your friend had about obits.

I'm with these older white guys and we're talking about bad things happening. Sandy Kreisberg — I think he's the funniest guy who ever wrote for the Globe op-ed pages like 30 years ago — Kreisberg has this kind of growl and he says, 'They're shooting at our regimen.' I just realized, it's perfect. You think you're well behind the lines, and other people are taking the fire.

You get to a certain age and you have to think carefully about the books you're going to read. It takes you a long time to read a book!

(...) If you're a newspaper columnist you always get these emails, 'I'd like to send you my manuscript,' and like two-and-a-half years ago I just said, 'No. No! If your name is William Styron, send me your manuscript.'

I have this pretentious phrase, We've become stewards of our own time. I started saying that to my friends about three or four years ago. (...) It's not the college administration, it's not our parents. We're taking care of our time for better and for worse. In this column, I make an eloquent plea to bleep off — just relax and have fun. Play solitaire! That's really dedicated to my wife.

Binge watch!

Binge watch, twice!

It's a fascinating study of people's lives. I love to read obituaries.

Yeah, it's not a bad job. You know, Marty Baron tried to make it a huge priority when he came in in 2001. It was a canny decision, frankly. It's all about money — you know, can you afford to throw the writers at the obituaries? But you see more of these kind of well-written, 'Ladies from Roslindale, pillar of the garden club.' But if you assign a writer to do that, Baron was right, it's an interesting instinct. Instead you have these damn Harvard profs — I mean, they're going to croak anyway, and we're going to be filled with them when they make their wonderful discoveries.

When you look at the Globe obituary page, you see these little tiny faces, and these long, paid death notices. A lot of these people have had extraordinary lives!

If you throw a good reporter up against the guy who ran the Elks Club in Roslindale you get pretty interesting results. Anybody can do the titan-of-state, it's all pre-written. (...) Those modest, paid obits [are another story]. The whole dynamiting of the newspaper industry [means] those are now quite expensive, because newsprint is so expensive. Everybody's been trying to get in the online obit space, but nobody really wants an online obit.

I think there should be a Pulitzer Prize for obituary writers.

Some of them are very good, and I believe none of them has won the Pulitzer.

There are these women, Anglo-Saxon, landed-gentry ladies who married young and had five children, and then at 35 went back and did these extraordinary things, and she had 18 grandchildren.

And they've always out-lived three husbands, which is nuts.

Each one richer than the last!

Exactly!

This is the first column I've read of yours where I did not need to look up one word in the whole thing. Is that a coincidence, or just happenstance?

It's just happenstance. I did try to keep it simple for you, Jim.

You also alerted us to a column you wrote about 'tenebrae.' What is tenebrae?

Tenebrae is a church service that takes place in the evening. It's taking place this week during the Christian Holy Week. Obviously it's also Passover week, but this is a Christian service. Tenebrae is the Latin word for "shadows." I literally stumbled across this service about 15 years ago, I was asked to read in it. I found this to be the most moving organized church service I've ever sat in on. I've since been to six or seven. (...)

The whole week is, for Christians, the week Jesus is facing his death and subsequent resurrection. On the night before he's crucified, there's a service of the dying of the light. It starts around 6:30, so the service takes place just as the sun is setting, and past sunset. (...) You light small candles while you read little pieces of scripture pertaining to the death of Jesus Christ.

Are the candles the only light in the church?

Yeah, and they are eventually blown out with the exception of one. So there is only one, symbolizing the hope of Jesus coming back. (...) So at the end of the service — hardly anybody attends, which makes it more haunting, more moving — you're in an empty church, it's dark, there's one candle, and then crazily there's this huge bang that is carried out by two preachers banging together garbage can lids. And it's said that in medieval times the bang was to wake people up who might've dozed off in the darkness. The whole thing is to wake you up to the good news that's coming on Friday.

I want to make clear, I'm not a religious nut or zealot. I completely pervert church teaching and I view this as a church service dedicated to the celebration of darkness.

A lot of Catholic churches have the Holy Thursday service, which is different from this. This is more of a Protestant thing — with a fantastic choir doing Gregorian chant.

Yeah, they go berserk on Tenebrae.

To hear the rest of Alex Beam's BPR interview, click below. For more, head to Alex Beam's website, and follow him on Twitter.


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