I heard the following stories on an episode of QI (series J, episode “Journalism”). As they are only quick ones, I’ll list a couple of them here in one post.

1.) The longest obituary ever published in the Times was for Queen Victoria which is unsurprising, really, considering the length and breadth of her reign. What is surprising, though, is that her obituary was 60,000 words long.

My PhD dissertation, which took 3 years to write and is 250 pages long, is 90,000 words. They must have had a journalist composing her obituary bit by bit for years, just gearing up for the day she died. There is no way someone would be able to write this in a few days, let alone hours, after her death.


This shows what a journalism neophyte I am! Commenter Reynardo over on my livejournal sister-site writes:

“As the daughter of a long-time Newspaper person, I can tell you that yes, they have a library of biographies, ready to be trotted out when the person gets an honour, produces a child, or dies. While I’m not sure how far back they did that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Times started theirs in the 1880s or so. It’s a good task to put your new trainee journos on, to hone up their writing and investigation skills. (The rest of the time, they’re on the Shipping News and the Legal Notices.)”

2.) There is a rumor (totally unsubstantiated) that Alfred Nobel once read his own obituary (printed under the misapprehension that he was dead, when he wasn’t); this obituary supposedly referred to him as a “merchant of death”, due to his invention of dynamite, and he was so horrified that this would be his legacy that he founded the Nobel Prize.

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One Response to Obituaries

  1. Standard practice in newspaper obituary departments was to have obits written and ready to roll for all major political figures, and card files on lesser people — anybody who you’d expect to find in “Who’s Who” (and presumably Burke’s Peerage). Indeed, such departments had full-time staff working to keep the unclosed obituaries up to date because they knew they’d be needed sooner or later. This has largely gone by the board this century, but was very much the case back then, and you can bet that the newspaper of record would have been tracking and updating Queen Vic’s undated obit for years before she died, just in anticipation of the inevitable.

    Word count … the word count of a thesis reflects the substance of the work that went into it; it takes a *lot* less than three years to write 90,000 words if the subject is, say, a lightweight novel rather than a summary of many years of scholarly research. (I did one such novel, of 109,000 words, in 18 days. Published by Penguin Random House, too.)


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