In a break with convention, a local newspaper obituary writer has chosen not to describe a recently deceased member of the community as ‘a loving husband and father who will be missed by the whole community’, instead describing them as ‘an utter bastard with no redeeming features’. “Everyone knew that the late Harry Corkers was a violent drunk who made his family’s life Hell and regularly indulged in ant-social behaviour, including urinating through neighbours’ letter boxes,” Monty Rental, staff writer on the Mid Sussex Pig Farmers’ Gazette told a national tabloid amid the furore which has followed his frank assessment of the dead man’s life. “I’m sick and tired of these whitewash jobs which pass for obituaries – ordinarily Corkers would have been described as a ‘colourful local character’, as if he was just some harmless eccentric when, in reality, he was an unpleasant drunken bully!” The obituary hasn’t been well-received by the dead man’s family, who have condemned it as an ‘outrageous slur on a loving family man’. “It never ceases to amaze how, once someone is dead, everyone tries to lionise them and make them a saint,” Rental mused. “The facts are there for everyone to see: the anti-social behaviour orders, the convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour, criminal damage and assault! The whole district saw the black eyes he regularly gave his wife, who is now claiming that he was a model husband! Well, I’m afraid that I’m no longer prepared go along with the lies!”

Rental has shrugged aside threats of legal action against him, pointing out that libel laws don’t apply to the dead. He has also reacted to allegations that he was a coward and that if his claims were true, he should have had the courage to make them whilst Corkers was still alive, highlighting the fact that all of Corkers’ criminal convictions were in the public domain and had, in fact, been reported by his newspaper at the time that they had occurred. “It’s ridiculous – I’ve had people shoving dog crap through my letterbox and hurling abuse at me in the street!” he told the tabloid. “I’ve even had death threats! All because I dared to tell people a truth they already knew! Believe me, nobody had a good word to say about Harry Corkers when he was alive, but now he’s dead he has become everybody’s best friend!” Undeterred by the hostility engendered by the Corkers obituary, Rental is already promising another frank obituary for his paper’s next edition. “Joey Jankles was fatally stabbed on his doorstep in an altercation with an ‘acquaintance’ of his son,” he explained in the tabloid interview, teasing the new obituary. “The reality is that he died in a dispute over drugs – Joey and his son were two of the biggest drug dealers in the area – he had a string of drug-related convictions, not to mention several more for violence and extortion! But according to all the stuff about him I’ve seen on Facebook, he was a ‘family man’ – yeah, he made sure his son was brought into the ‘family business’ – and ‘a bit of a lad’, if breaking someone’s fingers over a drug debt is classified as ‘laddish’ behaviour!”

Despite hostility from some quarters, many readers of the local paper have been highly positive toward Rental’s initiative, with the letters page full of supportive messages. “It’s so refreshing to finally see some honest reporting,” wrote Curt Crutchwell of Midhurst. “I’m sick and tired of seeing obituaries of people I’ve known all my life making them out to be bloody saints, when I know damned well they were complete arseholes.” In a similar vein, another reader decried the reaction of relatives to Rental’s obituaries. “It’s obvious that they need to learn some home truths about their supposed loved ones,” Amy Brantz of Petworth wrote. “These people are clearly delusional when it comes to their dead relatives – seeing them in their true light will make it much easier for them to let go of the deceased. If they maintain the fiction that they were saints then they’ll be forever mourning their dead. Accept that they were bastards and they’ll quickly realise that they are glad to be rid of them!”

By contrast, the national press has been less than enthusiastic in its support for Rental. “This sort of ‘warts and all’ approach is all very well at the local level, but would it really be appropriate the sorts of obituaries we run at the national level?” asked Milton Blegg, president of the British Obituary Writers Association and chief obituary writer for the Daily Excess in a recent editorial. “When it comes to being honest about the deceased, how far should one go with regard to, for instance, a much loved family entertainer? Would it really be in the public interest to reveal that they abused their position as presenter of a popular TV dating show to arrange three-in-a-bed romps with the young contestants? Would it be right to shatter the carefully constructed public persona, thereby traumatising millions of fans?” Blegg is also worried of the consequences if Rental’s policy of honesty was to spread to political obituaries. “Even more so than celebrities, politicians’ personas and careers are carefully constructed façades,” he explained. “To tell the truth about them after their deaths would be to deconstruct the myth, leaving the general population confused and questioning what they have previously accepted as historical fact – it could undermine the whole national character. If obituary writers had presented a more even handed assessment of Mrs Thatcher, for instance, questioning the myth of her economic competence and including reference to her attitudes toward race, then the whole idea of the ‘Iron Lady’, which has informed the identity of the British right for decades, would have been fatally wounded, with potentially disastrous electoral consequences!”

It is exactly these kinds of celebrity and political obituaries which Rental holds responsible for the unrealistic, sentimentalised local obituaries he has set out to challenge. “Just as the way celebrities lives are presented whilst they are alive so as to set up unrealistic expectations of life for ordinary people, so their fawning idealised obituaries make people think that their loved ones can be unrealistically mythologised in death,” he claimed in his tabloid interview. “People think that they can do for their relatives in death, what they couldn’t do in life: reform them into decent human beings. By fictionalising their lives in an obituary, they somehow think that they are perfecting their departed loved ones.” As for the idea that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead as a matter of simple decency, Rental has nothing but contempt for the concept. “Why on earth shouldn’t one speak ill of the dead – it’s the only bloody chance most of us will ever get,” he opines. “If you try it when they are still alive you run the risk of libel actions or being beaten up!”