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June 2019
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2003-08-20 Obituaries should remember the people who really matter

During the recent Iraqi crisis, I picked up a national newspaper - Forgive me Mr. Editor - at the airport as I was flying abroad. In the obituary section, I came across an appreciation of the life of General Ali Hassan al-Majid, known to the world as Chemical Ali, not Comical Ali who appeared on our TV screens daily telling us that Iraq was destroying the US Army!


The obituary was entitled Ruthless, brutal and corrupt henchman to Saddam. It recounted how Majid had devestated most of Kurdistan, killing more than 100,000 Kurds in his campaign of gassings, mass executions and starvation, including 5,000 on one day alone when an entire village was saturated with chemical weapons.


Majids attitude was captured on videotape  Who will say anything? The International community? F*** them!.This malevolent murderer had not even managed to get there on his own merit. Majid was a son of Saddams paternal uncle, and the family connections had helped his rise as a destroyer of human life. His obituary pointed out that he used his post to enrich himself through a web of smuggling and warped business deals. He also helped organise the murder of his own nephews and Saddams sons-in-law.The two other obituaries he shared the page with talked of ground-breaking achievements in fields of medicine and musical performance.

I wonder had this tyrannical general wanted to pen his own obituary years before, would this have been what he would have put to paper? Would he be proud of the appreciation that had just been written on his behalf? Yes of course Chemical Ali will be remembered, just as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot will, though to a lesser extent, but wouldnt it be nicer to be remembered for something nice?Many of my heroes from the world of music lived incredibly short but impressively productive lives.

Purcell and Bellini for example only made it barely to their mid-thirties. Schubert died at the age of 31, leaving us more than 600 perfect examples of the German lied (Art-song), as well as a vast output in almost every other musical form. My Desert-Island composer Mozart only just made it to 35 and his colossal catalogue includes his magnum opus - his Requiem, as well as hundreds of concerti, symphonies, sonatas, chamber music, masses and operas, some of which are the finest ever set to manuscript.

Mozart had a personal life which would make even Jerry Springer feel faint. He died penniless and was thrown into a paupers grave, but will be remembered for eternity through his exquisite music. An impressive obituary.In the realm of poetry, Keats, Shelley and Byron have bequeathed to the literary world countless works of art (one only has to read one of Keats sublime romantic odes), and these men were also cut off in their prime. Had they lived past their 30s, even to their 60s, would they have continued to turn out such gems, or was it fate that they (and Mozart) were snatched away at such an early age?

Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and James Dean, despite their premature tragic deaths, will be forever preserved in a sort of iconic bubble, in the same way that Princess Diana will  the fairy-tale princess story with the heartbreaking end.Even still, were we to write an obituary for any of the above, it would all be of a very positive nature.

Many opera singers had their glittering careers cut short  Kathleen Ferrier by cancer and Fritz Wunderlich by a shooting accident (accident, hmm?) in a hunting lodge. Freddie Mercurys glamorous, if decadent lifestyle led to his untimely death, but without him Queen would never have had the international success they had.Many of our great Irish patriots who fought to liberate our land were killed at a very early age in action  Robert Emmet and Theobald Wolfe Tone to name but two. Their names, and what they achieved for our island will never be forgotten.All of the examples I have used are of people who have made a positive example by their lives, and they will be forever immortalised through their contribution to society.

Chemical Ali will also be remembered, and Chemical Ali got his obituary printed in the paper, but I think I would prefer to be remembered in another way.