The Last Word

A Sign of the Times
The victims of 9/11 became larger in death than they had been in life.
by Steve Miller '84

Following the September 11th attacks, The New York Times began publishing a series of short obituaries that had a big impact in New York. The obits ran a full page or two in every edition. The Times announced that it intended to run obits of every single person who had perished.

This was wholly unprecedented. Of all of the places one's obituary can run in the United States, the Times is surely the pinnacle. Recognition there bestows some sort of existential cachet to the few who are chosen: "this was a man!" Despite a few complaints that the accounts were idealized, the Times obits were very well done, full of lively and evocative detail. Not all were completely positive: a fair portion included broken marriages, recoveries, difficult personalities, and the like. Nearly all were accompanied by photos, an important status symbol in the iconography of Times obits.

But these weren't quite "real" Times obits. Most weren't written by the regular obituarists, and they ran at the end of a special section devoted to the war, which, as one media professional pointed out, "became a destination." By extending its imprimatur to the ordinary victims of 9/11, the Times made a statement about the nature of their victimhood. Somehow these people were larger in death than they had been in life.

The problem was that the vast majority of the dead were much larger in life than in death. Their obituaries, by appearing in the Times (with its vast national circulation and influence), made them into the nation's victims. By placing their obits at the end of a daily section that featured huge photos of an alien and barren landscape where the enemy lurked in foul lairs, it was as if the Times was saying, "here's why we should care about the world." It made me uncomfortable, in part because I am an obituarist by avocation and I don't like it when obits are used for political purposes. But it made me uncomfortable also because I almost became a subject. I was in the south tower of the World Trade Center when the second plane hit.

My first real job after Oberlin was at a newspaper. A little gang of us had graduated, post-post-Watergate, intending to make a living as reporters. I envisioned it to be something like His Girl Friday crossed with, say, James Reston. We had all worked at The Oberlin Review, and pretty soon we had jobs at dailies and weeklies.

I landed on the night rewrite desk of the late and not-widely lamented North Bergen (N.J.) Dispatch, assigned to the lowliest among all jobs at most papers: obituaries. The night rewrite man had the job of transcribing obits, most contributed by local funeral homes. I filled out a form for each: age, cause of death, occupation, achievements, club memberships, extracurricular activities, family. Such treatment, still typical of most newspapers, straitjackets any life. I rebelled by placing fictional obits of my friends in the paper on slow nights. It is a testament to the low status of the obits that nobody caught on. A decade later, no longer an ink-stained wretch, I founded GoodBye!, The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries, the first and still only publication dedicated to an alternative vision of obituaries.

My favorite critique of obituaries came from a drunk guy I met while at an obituary writers' conference in New Mexico last summer. He spun around on his barstool and said, "Why do you obituary writers lie all the time? Why don't you tell the truth: that that guy is dead, and I'm glad he's dead?"

His buddy, also well into his cups, then told a story. There once was a man who had lived nearby, a peeping Tom. One day the man was discovered peeping into the window of a woman by her husband. The husband killed the peeper with a shot through the head. Because of his perversion, no one could be found to bury the peeper. Finally, the storyteller's uncle, a furniture maker and stonemason, agreed to manufacture a coffin. He planed the boards and even carved a headstone. He surmounted the stone with a bust he had sculpted himself. The bust had a hole drilled right through the head.

That is GoodBye!'s message in a nutshell. The way to commemorate the dead is with honesty and fervor, to recount the things about their lives that have most mattered and to stress their individuality. Foreshortened impressionism in a political context, as practiced in the Times, dishonors their memory even more than the forms I filled out at the Dispatch.

It is understandable for politicians to invoke victims when explaining a nation's response. But running their obituaries as the Times did struck me as manipulative and creepy. Perhaps it is a better decision sometimes not to memorialize the dead. It is good to contemplate the dead in their individuality. It is bad to induct them into a club they would have never joined willingly.

On the day of the attacks I walked home through a blizzard of debris from the collapsed towers and greeted my wife near our home in Brooklyn. She thought I was dead, so our reunion was dramatic. If I had died that day, I wouldn't have wanted to be memorialized in the Times. At least not among the masses. Inclusion with the regular obits would have been OK. Above the fold would have been even better.

Steve Miller has held jobs in journalism, dropped out of grad school, and sold his soul to Wall Street. GoodBye! is at

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