What the Queen’s Death Can Teach Journalists About Obituaries

Billboard honoring Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022)
Piccadilly Circus billboard honors Queen Elizabeth II, who died Sept. 8 at age 96. (Pietro Recchia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The mixed response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II is befitting of the head of a much-declined but persisting empire. On the one hand, there is somber reverence for her decades of service and sacrifice to the United Kingdom and its traditions. On the other, there’s retributive jubilation that the face of an institution — the British monarchy — that has contributed greatly to some of the most well-known global human catastrophes, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to colonialism, has met its end. Death is, indeed, the great equalizer.

But obituaries, many of the queen’s included, don’t always reflect these complexities and perspectives. Traditionally, obituaries of public figures have been less a thorough account of the impact of their major words, deeds and stances, and more a tribute to their benevolent works. This posture stems from sentimental sensibilities against “speaking ill of the dead” or that the days following a dignitary’s death is not the appropriate time to examine their personal transgressions or that of the establishments they represented. See, for example, how the late former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s record in Iraq was “whitewashed,” following her death in March.  

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Obituaries of public figures, though, should be factual reflections. A journalist’s job is to capture not just the dead’s historical record but the reach and impact of that record.

“When you sign up to be a public figure with power and influence, that’s part of the role, even in death, to be judged,” said Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah, who wrote about the importance of speaking to the “ugly truths” of the queen and the British Empire. “I don’t think any public figure should be or is free from scrutiny and judgment in life or in death, perhaps especially in death.”

If we omit any public figure’s controversies and failures in reflecting on their life in public, we must then ask: What purpose is the obituary serving? And, more importantly, for whom? 

Journalists choose what counts — and what doesn’t — in remembering a public figure’s life

It is a fundamental mistake to approach the account of a public figure’s life with a perspective that they are universally beloved without checking for bias. Minimizing the opposition to a dominant narrative is a failure of an important journalistic value — accuracy. Despite continuing arguments in newsrooms over the stances journalists should and shouldn’t take, the one thing most newspeople agree on is that the pursuit of precision — from how a story is contextualized to how its details are described — is paramount.

Of course, part of the problem with obituary writing is that even on the internet, journalists do not have infinite space. As so-called writers of the first draft of history, we are afforded even less space than most others who document the public record, such as biographers and historians: We have to decide what to include and exclude from the narrative.

But in chronicling the life of public figures, we must insert the historical events that shaped the environment in which they arose, some of which might even precede them. This is certainly true of the queen: We cannot talk about the monarchy, even in its representative state, without reference to the British empire, and the consequences of its existence for millions of people around the world and their history.

For instance, a truthful account of Elizabeth’s legacy and the British government under her reign cannot evade illuminating the intentional destruction of documentation regarding Britain’s colonial crimes. It cannot ignore the detainment, violence and torture of Kenyans who rebelled against colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, or Britain’s role in the Nigerian civil war and the more than 1 million people who were killed or starved. It cannot ignore the monarchy’s treatment of Princess Diana or the current treatment of Meghan Markle. It cannot ignore the queen’s disgraced son, Prince Andrew, and his involvement with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender who died by suicide in jail. These events are as notable as her televised coronation in 1952, the first of its kind, or her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, the first for a British monarch in 100 years. 

In excluding any perceived or real failures from the public record, journalists are making a decision that is not only a breach of accuracy but also one that takes for granted that opposition to popular narratives are not worth examining. Besides, the idea that obituaries should be respectful, or that unflattering details should be relegated to a line at the end, are arguments usually only granted to those seen as heroes in Western society: politicians, monarchs, celebrities, business leaders, and sometimes, social change-makers — many of whose presence perpetuates, or seldom threatens, any kind of societal hegemony or structural power in the places they live. And the Western institutions that memorialize them — including the leadership that runs some of our country’s most respected publications — have often not been disrupted by their legacy. 

“I think a lot of the defensiveness comes from the fact that we don’t like our heroes to be questioned because it says something about our own values and our own ignorance perhaps, and our own identity,” Attiah said.

Without questioning the function of national and global power of these “heroes,” journalists are proceeding as if the perceived or proclaimed champions and enemies of the West are everyone’s champions and enemies. This extends to wanting to seem “neutral” about political divides in our country. A recent obituary for Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., raved about her life of public service and working well with colleagues on either side of the political aisle before, in its final paragraph, informing the reader that she voted against certifying the 2020 election. For a nation that prides itself on its free press being central to its democracy, it is rather curious that an anti-democratic act is recorded as if it were an afterthought.

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves, not only who is impacted by a public figure’s death, but who was impacted by their lives? 

Go beyond ‘balance.’ Layer the multitudes.

At the risk of wading into journalism’s unceasing “objectivity wars,” the penchant to write a public figure’s obituary or any posthumous piece on their life, with the aim of being fair and balanced, is a game that is largely unwinnable. It’s also a game of which the outcome is dependent on the response of the perceived audience one has in mind when writing. For example, “The Soldier from the Bronx,” published in The New York Times following the death of Colin Powell last October, allows for the man who articulated U.S. national security policy to be seen as simply a city kid who went far and made it. It’s a fitting stance for the paper that understands the ego of the average New Yorker and can seamlessly play into that framing of its hometown readers.  

Still, facts of all kinds — those that adhere to a dominant view and those that do not — are not disputable. Just as Powell’s record in Iraq cannot be expunged from his public record nor can any report of Queen Elizabeth bypass the millions of current and former colonial subjects who may have some choice words for her and Britain’s colonial history. It’s how those facts are framed that matters.

Any account of a public life worth reading must contain a myriad of ways in which a life can be looked at differently by different people, as much as it must contain wrestling with the contradictions brought about by that life and death. After all, a life that generates much conversation would almost certainly not have been a simple, straightforward one. Our convictions and words in chronicling these lives should reflect as much.