On first opening any newspaper, I go straight to the obituaries. It is a habit of a lifetime, which most people who know me do not find at all surprising. But I don’t think it is particularly morbid. Reading the obituaries shows an interest in people and their achievements rather than a fascination with death (although I could be accused of both). When the front pages show us, the living, concocting new and more horrible ways of making this planet uninhabitable, those celebrations of interesting and fulfilled lives are more uplifting. The Michigan undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch sees his trade not so much as “something done with the dead [but] something done for the living, to something done by the living – every one of us.”
The Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco began ‘collecting’ obituary headlines in the 1990s. In his current Tate Modern show, there is one gallery filled with these texts, printed on long, vertical (grave plot-sized) sheets. All his headlines are taken from the New York Times, where the convention is to list the name of the deceased, followed by his or her age, and then a pithy line summing up the life. Orozco has removed the names and ages, so what the viewer is left with are these random headlines. These include:
Expert on Infidelity
Famed Rainmaker in Drought
A Leader in Abstract Algebra
Built a Cosmetics Empire and Adored Pink
There are twenty-seven headlines on each sheet, all printed in the paper’s old house typeface Bookman (which has since been replaced by Cheltenham; the Bookman face is the one I remember as a child, the one which always signified “news” to me). They are reprinted in different sizes, as when they first appeared, to signify the importance of the life. They are arranged on the sheets so that some lines are indented, to appear more like fleeting, incomplete statements, rather than a list (the way certain lives weave in and out of our own). The whole effect is like a found poem, a gathering of the great and the good and the downright eccentric, all reduced to one headline moment, and all lofty enough to have earned their place in the New York Times. The result is profoundly moving, but also humorous, as part of the game is to pick out some of the wackier lines, as well as to try and match the headlines to their subjects.
The piece is certainly in keeping with Orozco’s interests as an artist, as he is concerned not just with pattern, shape and scale, but how the man-made coexists with the natural, how the human scale measures up to what we find around us. His practice is always questioning, but playful with it. That’s the poet’s job as well.
I’ll finish with the words of Thomas Lynch, talking about the similarity of poems and funerals. The role of the eulogist is very much the same as the obit writer, to tell a good story. And from that story of a life, the artist or poet selects the most resonant moments:
A good funeral, like a good poem, is driven by voices, images, intellections and the permanent. It moves us up and back the cognitive and imaginative and emotive register. The transport seems effortless, inspired, natural as breathing or the loss of it. In the space between what is said and unsaid, in the pause between utterances, whole histories are told; whole galaxies are glimpsed in the margins, if only momentarily.