The ability to celebrate life in the face of death takes a special talent.
Sandra Martin, obituary writer for the Globe and Mail, explained how she practices her craft in a recent talk to journalism students at Centennial College’s East York campus. Martin discussed her book Working the Deadbeat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada.
Martin started by noting how her occupation can make others uneasy.
“I have come to accept that people take a step back when they hear what I do for a living, as though I have something catching,” she said.
She acknowledged how even her colleagues consider her role the “Siberia of journalism.” But there are other forces in play generating such strong responses to this writer.
“They think of me as a symbol of death. I think we are a little afraid of death and as a society we are very afraid of death,” she said.
Martin is clear about the reason for her work.
“The real purpose of obituaries is to construct a narrative about people’s lives in the context of their time,” she said. “They are also vibrant building blocks of a country’s social and cultural history.”
History making can be an exacting science when accuracy is paramount and deadlines are tight.
“Obituaries are usually written under extreme deadline pressure,” Martin said. “They are the final word on somebody’s life. So you have to get it right. There are no follow-ups.”
As a journalist, she said she is not writing eulogies for the recently departed. Rather, she believes she has an obligation to report the truth as she sees it.
“That means including the quirks as well as the triumphs; the faults as well as the achievements,” Martin said.
For example, when writing about Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, Martin described how Wilson helped give meaning to Canada’s newly minted Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Wilson argued for a woman’s right to choose, for spousal abuse as a defence for manslaughter and for a refugee claimant’s right to be heard. Martin did not shy away from describing the jurist’s stubborn and difficult streak.
Throughout her career as an obituary writer, Martin has dealt with grieving relatives and the daunting task of describing complete lives in an impossibly short space. But her dedication to the craft has never waivered.
“I want my subjects to breathe one more time on the page,” she said.
Her “most important Canadian?”
“Pierre Trudeau. He made this country modern. He changed this country enormously. In terms of what happened between Quebec and the rest of Canada, the Charter, multiculturalism, the alienation of the West with the National Energy Program. He had a tremendous impact on this country.”