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Mobituaries by Mo Rocca

In the days when print newspapers reigned, it was not uncommon for an aspiring reporter’s first assignment at the newspaper that they hoped to build a journalistic career was to write the obituaries.

It was either that or cover dog shows and amateur sports events.

Although it was a good training ground to polish your writing skills for when you move up in the world of journalism, putting together those obituaries could be – and usually was – a mundane task. Basically, it was the same format; the name of the deceased, the date of death, the cause of death, the list of grieving family members and relatives, where and when the funeral is taking place, and where any donations could be made in lieu of flowers. All in all, there was little or no room for creativity.

Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Mobituaries by Mo Rocca

However, the New York Times managed to break free from the cookie cutter newspaper obituaries, and turned them into an art form that made people want to read them. Reporters who were charged with writing obituaries didn’t settle for the standard format; instead, they expanded upon it. They got details from that person’s life and wrote an obituary that show the deceased in question lived a life that mattered, whether they be a Nobel Prize winner, a renowned scientist, or an everyday Joe who somehow made a difference in the life of others in their own unique way.

Mo Rocca, the writer/broadcaster (and regular contributor for the CBS “Sunday Morning” program) took that New York Times obituary model to a new level. Earlier this year, he debuted a new podcast called “Mobituaries”, in which for 60 minutes, he would offer his own take on the obituary, in which he would recount through research, archives and interviews, the life and times of a number of personalities from the legendary (Sammy Davis, Jr. and Audrey Hepburn), to the obscure (John F. Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader and original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker), to the unusual (Chuck Cunningham and other TV characters who were “killed off” in the middle of a successful TV series’ run).

The podcast’s first season was a hit (with the second season debuting this week), and for fans of “Mobituaries” (myself included), they will be delighted to know that Rocca has just released a companion book.

The book contains Mo Rocca’s style of obituaries that were featured on the first season of his podcast, which landed in the #1 spot of Apple’s podcast chart, such as the Bunker Siamese Twins, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Jennings (who did Rosa Parks’ heroic act of resistance to racial segregation on a New York trolley over 100 years before Ms. Parks did it on a Montgomery, Alabama bus), and Moses Fleetwood Walker, who became the first Black player in major league baseball 60 years before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. As well, there are essays that will be featured on the second season of “Mobituaries”, including the one about Jimmy Carter’s beer-swilling, headline-making brother Billy, which kicked off season two.

Besides examining the life and death of well-known and not-so-well-known personalities, the book also looks into the “deaths” of certain countries (Prussia), brands of science (medieval science), sports teams (the Dominican Republic-based Los Dragons de Ciudad Trujillo baseball team, which folded after one season), types of vehicles (the station wagon), and three types of “reputation assassinations” (which dealt with a forgotten opera composer, an obscure British novelist and even Disco music). And each “mobituary” is followed with its own sidebar piece that deals with the similar theme that is the focus of the person or subject matter in question (for example, the “mobituary” about comedian Fanny Brice — who was immortalized in Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning performance in “Funny Girl” — is followed by a sidebar about historical figures who were eclipsed by the actors who portrayed them in the movies, such as James Cagney as George M. Cohan, Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, and Doris Day as Calamity Jane).

What I enjoyed about both the podcast and the book is Rocca’s penchant for in-depth research, which results in the reader and/or listener discovering more about certain personalities that they thought they knew about. And that adds a whole new, revealing perspective to them, which builds upon their mystique. For example, the chapter dealing with Audrey Hepburn explains how the Nazi occupation of her native Holland during the Second World War affected her so emotionally, that she decided to dedicate her remaining years towards helping underprivileged children around the world as a UNICEF ambassador.

So whether you’re into entertainment, pop culture or history, let Mo Rocca and Mobituariesbe your ultimate guide into the life and times of people who you have heard about, or have rarely heard about, and gain a new appreciation of their respective contributions to the world. At least you can be satisfied that they have never died in vain. (Simon & Schuster, $39.95)

Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca

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