Two days ago the obituaries editor came round and asked if I would like to write about someone who had done something important to do with platelets. I said yes; I need the money, and I am not afraid to learn on the job. Science and medicine have never really been to my interest or taste, but a thousand word obituary pays well enough, and everyone deserves some kind of memorialisation in death, right?
Most obituaries are written well in advance, and then touched up or modified throughout the years as their achievements and notoriety grow. All of the newspapers in the world have an obituary ready and waiting for the Queen to die, and I don’t doubt that they’ve had some variation since she was at least in her twenties. Maybe from the day she was born, I don’t know. Pity the writer who has to say something cheerful about a little dead baby in six or seven paragraphs. A big, important newspaper like the New York Times will have thousands of tributes written to mourn the living dead, and while I won’t go so far as to say it’s a ghoulish practice, there is, among obituary writers (we unhappy few) a certain sense of heightened mortality, and the uncomfortable awareness of the limitations of youth and time which comes from knowing that, at best, unless you are truly epochal, you’ll only make page B4.
I move on the edges, spend time with the mildly famous dead. I write about those people who haven’t been looked at in a while and who, on balance, probably need a full rewrite. Gustave Hinkler, who specialised in the methods by which platelets travel through the body, had an obituary that hadn’t been touched in twenty years. Platelets, I learned, are disc-shaped cell fragments which exist in blood and help with clotting, and as I wrote I was uncomfortably aware of my blood coursing through my veins, and for a time I developed the habit of pressing my hand to my chest to feel my heart beat. Still going – no obituary for me!
Portions of Hinkler’s obituary were still in German, a relic of the enthusiastic science buff who had written the first pass-through and neither him nor anybody else had bothered to translate his own notes upon his resignation.
Who can blame him?
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The above piece of writing comprises part of my fragments project, some of which are available on this website. I intend to add new fragments piecemeal, not in any particular order, and as the occasion take me.