1 December 2019 Susannah

A Good Obituary

Deepest condolences

I always enjoy reading a well-written obituary. My favourite one from 2019 was published in The Times in June, and concerned a legal professor named Sir Guenter Treitel, QC. He’s a man whom I’d have just loved to meet. Treitel’s life began in Berlin in 1928. He was the son of a lawyer and the family were part of the Jewish intelligentsia in the city. That all changed when Hitler came to power and laws and social attitudes concerning Jews grew harsh. In 1939 the Treitels were able to get their children on a ship to England where they were sponsored by a relative and life for the young boy in a foreign land was very difficult. However, he was bright, won scholarships, got himself to the University of Oxford and became a highly respected lawyer.

My especial interest in this man came from his passion for books. In 1984 he published Jane Austen and the Law. He claimed to read Jane Austen every day “but would tackle the novels in strict rotation, thus avoiding the temptation to reread only Emma” (now you see why I wanted to meet this man!). His writing style was described as being “as clear as a chalk stream”. What fun to sit down with this cultured, intelligent man and discuss Mrs Bennet’s problems with the entail or Jane Austen’s dispute with publisher Richard Crosby over her unpublished Susan (eventually published as Northanger Abbey).

The art of a good obituary is to make the reader feel the essence of the person who has died. I felt that with Guenter Treitel and wish our Australian papers had more obituaries of this quality. If you subscribe to The Times you can read it for yourself here: Professor Sir Guenter Treitel, QC obituary. (paywall)

If you are keen to read other well-penned obituaries, you might like to try The New York Times Book of the Dead which includes many fascinating pieces from the paper commemorating those who have been famous and are now dead.

Have you read The New York Times Book of the Dead? Do you have a favourite obituary to share with me? Let me know in a comment.

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Header image credit- Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/condolences-trauerkarte-letters-3991589/
Body image credit- Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Comments (6)

  1. Barbara McKay

    Writing an obituary is very difficult as on one hand you do not want the deceased to be seen as a saint and on the other hand you cannot rubbish the person no matter how many sins you can list.
    Wishing you, the darling granddaughters and the family a very Merry Christmas
    Thank you for the year
    Barbara McKay

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree that writing an obituary is a big challenge. With some people it must be especially hard, but the man I included just sounded such a lovely person and had been through such a difficult childhood. I wish I’d met him and sat down to talk about ‘Emma’ with him.
      Thanks for the kind wishes. Merry Christmas to you too.

  2. Paddy

    I think that everyone should be aware of the difference between an obituary and a CV.

  3. Carolyn Cossgrove

    I probably would have assumed a ‘chalk stream’ was a murky water way, however I just happened to watch a documentary yesterday on Britain’s hidden gems, and a crystal clear cold chalk stream was one of them.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have to admit I made the same assumption, and looked it up! We learn something new every day.

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