Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Injecting Life Into Obits: You Have To Know Someone at The New York Times To Avoid Prose Being Prosaic

Impressive Douglas Martin Eulogy of Danny Perasa Should Be Rule, Not Exception
This space continues to mourn the dead, or at least how the dead are often treated on the obituary pages of The New York Times. Misplaced priorities and turgid writing too often take the place of insight and some measure of who the deceased really was.

Stepping away from the prosaic status quo was an obit written by Douglas Martin of Danny Perasa, a longtime member of the Times office staff, who gained a following among NPR listeners as he and his wife spoke of a most enchanted marriage as part of the StoryCorps project.

Perasa died last week at age 67, and was given a fitting send-off by Martin.
Daniel Anthony Perasa was born on Oct. 9, 1938, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, where he spent most of his life. The doctor who delivered him predicted that the weak baby would live no more than five years. As it happened, the doctor died on Oct. 9, 1943, the very day Danny was not supposed to see.
"It was my first funeral," Mr. Perasa said. "I enjoyed it immensely."

The obit is full of such pearls. But earlier, there was this telling line:

"Mr. Perasa's therapy for diabetes was very long walks. On some, he was accompanied by this reporter, who often sought his wisdom."

Ah, so that's how you get an obit with feeling in the Times, know the guy who's writing it. Hate to be cynical about it, but the horribly detached, antiseptic renderings that are typical of a Times obit send you in that direction.

Let's hope new Times obit editor Bill McDonald will take a hint from the Perasa paean and commission many more such farewells, especially when one of the Gray Lady's own bows out, but also for those great and small who lived a good life that deserves to be recounted.

As Martin notes, the Perasas recorded a final piece that aired on NPR last Friday, the same day Danny died. You may not have known them, but you wish you did. Bring a hankie.

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