Birte Twisselmann: Last words

For me, one of the best things about working at the BMJ is the fact that my job has kept evolving over the years. In September 2011 I took over the editing of our short obituaries section, and after an initial mega-panic at having to re-familiarise myself with style, process, weekly throughput, phone calls, emails, and numerous tasks that I had neither done in years nor envisaged as part of the role of “short obituaries editor” (in view of my height, this is a somewhat misleading title—suggestions how to improve it are greatly welcomed), I have started to settle into my new challenge and have started to enjoy it hugely—it’s a journey of discovery in so many ways, it’s interesting, satisfying, and never, ever boring or routine.

One of the many enjoyable aspects of this has been that I constantly use the opportunity to revise my own processes, in order to make the publication process smooth for my colleagues and in order to do justice to the pieces themselves. The obituaries I deal with are written and sent in by colleagues or relatives of the deceased and vary in length and style; most are accompanied by photos (occasionally very old photos), which I really like as this gives me an idea of the person whose life story I am dealing with). They are published on bmj.com in their full length, only edited for style. For the print BMJ I shorten them to about 130 words, which does not leave an awful lot of scope for telling a story, but I have found over the months that the story often tells itself if I leave several days between editing the long version and shortening it for print. Then I see them through until they appear on bmj.com and, slightly later, in print. Then I go through my various lists of “author requirements” and mail out pdfs or copies of the print BMJ in the post if an author has specifically requested this. In between I deal with phone calls from authors who are waiting for their obituaries to appear or from people who want to submit an obituary but don’t know how to go about this.

It’s a fantastically rewarding task—from an editorial point of view, having “my own page” is a great experience, and ensuring that all the elements are in place to get this done every week with the help of production editors, duty editors, proofreaders, and others is a wonderful experience of teamworking. From a psychological point of view, the telephone interactions with obituary writers or family members of the deceased are something I absolutely love—especially if people eventually start laughing at the mention of my name.

I am strictly one for saying positive things about the dead—and I am glad that the pieces that are submitted to me are unequivocally positive, as one would expect from family and friends. I am also moved by what amazing things these doctors did during their lives—from doing national service during the second world war to introducing early precursors of health screening programmes, even before the NHS existed, to their various eclectic hobbies and interests. These snapshots of people’s lives, their “stories,” are something I find deeply touching. And as I become more experienced in the job I am hoping to condense the longer pieces into increasingly compelling shorter stories, giving a real flavour of the person to be committed to memory.

Something I’d like to encourage readers to do more is submitting rapid responses to obituaries and share their own memories of the deceased in that way—I have received two or three over the months, and I love the way in which they add a more subjective note. So please, if you remember someone whose obituary we have published please do not feel shy about sharing your own memories.

Another plan that I am still hatching in order to increase participation of readers and writers, add a variety of voices, and use our website’s interactive features to the full is occasionally to record and publish a podcast along the lines of Radio 4’s Last Words programme—and I am hoping for brave volunteers to agree to do this later this year. If you would like to take part in this, please get in touch. The same goes for other ideas of how to improve my section: please send me any ideas or suggestions you might have.

Birte Twisselmann is web editor and short obituaries editor.

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  • Aser García Rada

    Hi Birte:

    Dealing with death, in its most various possible ways, seems a really interesting issue, specially because it makes us be in contact with our own transient nature. I think it would be interesting to know if you only accept obituaries from UK doctors, or people from other countries can send them to?

    Greetings from Spain!

  • Richard Smith

    Did you know, Birte, that Richard Gordon said that he learnt to write fiction through editing BMJ obituaries?
        It’s admirable in many ways that you want to speak only positively of the dead, but how then would you have edited the obituary the BMJ carried of Harold Shipman? Surely you couldn’t leave out the “nasty” bits, and Shipman will undoubtedly be on the of the best remembered doctors of the 20th century.
        My line is that you dishonour somebody by describing only the positive. The story becomes a one dimensional fairy story–unbelievable. Cocteau said “Cherish what others criticise about you–because that is you.”