The business of writing obituaries may seem, at first glance, a morbid affair. Just think of the title of Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of the New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman: “Mr. Bad News.” But obituary writing is far from depressing and some of the best non-fiction writing of the past 20 years has appeared in the obituary section. The writing is, at turns, poignant, lively, empathic, and full of wit. And a generation of obituary writers have paid tribute to celebrities as well as everyday people.
Marilyn Johnson explored the subculture of obituary scribes in her wonderful 2006 book, The Dead Beat. Here is a tribute she wrote about Princess Diana for LIFE magazine in 1997. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Hundreds of years ago, she would have been beheaded. She was a fair maiden, a beautiful virgin born on a summer's day, married on a summer's day. Touchingly, she loved her prince. He loved her not. She did her duty to the Crown, producing two healthy male heirs, then was imprisoned in the castle tower. In ways large and small, devious and immature, ingenious and inspiring, she struggled to escape. She was not decapitated, or even banished. Instead, she was divorced. She secured her own quarters in one of the palaces, and she kept her job as princess. The Queen, no doubt annoyed at the Princess's vow to become "the Queen of people's hearts," declared she could no longer be called Her Royal Highness.
With the help of the treacherous media, the Princess created a rival court from which she set about influencing her older son, the Future King. Almost a year to the day of the decree dissolving her marriage, and just weeks after falling in love with an Egyptian of fabulous wealth, she was driven into a tunnel on a late summer night and vanished.
The Princess's funeral was a stunning convergence of the powerful and the beautiful, the poor and the afflicted. More than a million souls filled the streets of London and in an eerie hush tossed flowers at her casket as a team of stalwart horses pulled her body to Westminster Abbey. Her sons walked behind her, flanked by their father, the Prince; their grandfather, the Duke; and their uncle, the Earl. Every minute, a muffled tenor bell broke the silence. The Queen bowed.
Even while this tale unfolded, it did not seem real. In the days and weeks that followed her death, pundits and prophets sat at roundtables, trying to figure out what she had meant and why the world was responding to her passing with such grief. It was her flaws, her failures, her struggles with her weight and her self-esteem, and her refusal to be shamed by them. No, it was her good works and the way she touched the common people, her "constituency of the rejected," in her brother's words—the handicapped, drug addicts, lepers. No, it was the way she broke free of a stifling marriage, reinventing herself as a single mother who loved her children but who also loved sailing with a playboy. No, it was her courage, standing up to the Queen, going public with her troubles. No, it was the fact that she died so young. That alone could break your heart.
Why are you crying? mourners were asked.
We don't know, they said. Our grief has surprised us, too. We didn't know how much we loved her.
THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL
Except for the love of her sons, the Princess lived in a hostile milieu. The photographers who staked her out were a horror. She was not good with the royal family. Relationships in her "blood family," a distinction her brother pointedly made at her funeral, were often strained and fractious. Numerous attendants to her and her prince were either let go or threw up their hands and quit. Her lovers betrayed her. Even her friendships were touch and go; her rift with Elton John wasn't patched up until their friend Gianni Versace's memorial service, six weeks before her death. Somehow, she reached around the backs and over the heads of all of them to touch her subjects directly.
Videotape of the Princess, hurrying through an airport pursued by photographers and cameramen, shielding her head with a tennis racket: A girl approaches with flowers. Diana stops, smiles, cradles the flowers and, still holding the tennis racket against the side of her face, has a brief, sweet exchange with the child. Then she ducks and continues running.
A HEART FILLED WITH LONGING
In so many ways, she was an artifice, a savvy, public-relations-consulting princess who was coached by movie directors, advised by foreign policy experts and prime ministers (and astrologers), dressed by fashion designers, showered with wealth and jewels, and buffed to a world-class polish. She had been summoned by the palace. Her glass slipper fit. Her prize—the role of consort to the heir to the throne—required only the occasional wave from a distant balcony, a firm handshake, and a fertile constitution. She did what was required, but she used her handshakes to reach out to people. She seemed to want real encounters with real people. "She looked me in the eye," one limousine driver recalled, surprised and grateful. Unlike most celebrities, she invited physical contact—publicly touching people battling AIDS, or cuddling a boy with a tumor so rancid his doctor could barely tolerate the smell. She encouraged intimacy in an extraordinary interview, televised in 1995, in which she confessed to infidelity, bulimia and, most poignantly, loneliness. She made herself vulnerable, this boarding school dropout with a self-esteem problem, this woman adored by strangers and dismissed by her husband. Once divorced, she rid herself of the security guards, her protectors, and tried to live her life undefended. You could see her standing in line at McDonald's, a beautiful princess who claimed all the fakery was on the inside of the palace, and only we in our love were real.
She had what is often called a bleeding heart; it had been part of her since childhood. When she was six, her mother left; two years later her parents divorced. Diana used to lie awake at night, listening to her little brother cry himself to sleep, haunted by her failure to comfort him. She was the girl who rescued sick animals, the woman who talked to homeless people on the street. She was drawn to all kinds of pain: "Drug addicts, alcoholism, battered this, battered that—and I found an affinity there," she once told us. She had a way of convincing sick and maimed people that she was their equal. Her good works felt religious, but she wasn't religious in a conventional way. She was more of a spiritualist, a New Age believer in the power of good and the mysteries of the universe. One August day she left her psychic's office in tears, we heard, because the woman had warned her to stay away from Dodi Fayed. By month's end a car crash proved him a fatal lover. He died instantly; she lived long enough to be carried to an operating table. There, doctors opened the Princess's chest and held her heart. Ordinarily, a medical team might massage the heart an hour before giving up. But in this case, even the doctors couldn't believe what was happening. Descending the ladder of hopelessness, they massaged Diana's heart for two hours, pumping it with their own hands, before they conceded to reality and pronounced her dead at 4:15 a.m., Sunday, August 31, 1997.
A DEEP, DEEP SLEEP
Diana was attracted to death. It was a progression for her. She discovered she felt better visiting the sick; the gratitude of the dying felt like love. She had always had fits of kindness, but as she grew closer to a life alone, she began courting people who suffered. When an AIDS-related illness weakened a friend, she committed herself to being with him when he died. She hastened between her royal duties and his deathbed. He taught her how to die by slow example, and she was radiant with the privilege. "When people are dying, they're much more open and more vulnerable, and much more real than other people," she said revealingly on television.
Death was real enough for Diana, and she was courageous enough to prepare for it. She didn't read many books, but she did read books about death. She sought out the Archbishop of Canterbury to talk about death. She talked to others as well, with remarkable intensity. She identified with Princess Grace of Monaco and, devastated by the older princess's death in a car accident in 1982, claimed the right to represent England at her funeral. Diana herself was often reckless with cars. In one famous tale, she escaped the palace and raced off through London in the middle of the night, alone, only to be pursued by a car of thrilled young men. As the potential object of a terrorist attack, she had been taught all kinds of survival skills: She knew how to fire guns, blast through roadblocks, escape ambushes. Yet in Paris she failed to buckle her seat belt in a fleeing car.
Her suicide attempts were often dismissed as halfhearted, but the truth is she tried to kill herself at least four times, not very nicely, either: slashing her body, hurling herself down stairs. This attraction to death should have been a warning to us. Taken with the magnitude of her celebrity in a world where rabid fans stalk and even kill famous people, it should have made her someone we worried about losing.
But when the knock on the door that we all know is coming came for her, we were stunned. How could someone larger than life not be larger than death, too? The ubiquitous Diana, Princess of Wales, had been photographed exhaustively, documented, catalogued, profiled, analyzed, criticized, studied, captured. Her luminous face has been preserved forever, and multiplies with every tribute. She is as close to immortal as we get on earth. But she was in a car wreck, just like an ordinary person who stands in line at McDonald's. Her vulnerability was not a metaphor; it was real. And she was right—she was one of us. She proved it by dying a common death.
Why all the tears? Is it because nobody feels safe the day a princess dies?