For Mo Rocca, a great obituary “can feel like a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic, leaving the reader breathless.” The CBS correspondent adores them so much that he has crafted his own form, which he calls “mobituaries”—“an appreciation for someone who didn’t get the love she or he deserved the first time around.”
In his book Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Living, and in his podcast by the same name, Rocca presents his research about celebrities (Sammy Davis Jr.), historical figures (Thomas Paine, Herbert Hoover), relatives of the famous (Billy Carter, the president’s brother) and forgotten figures (conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, or Vaughn Meader, whose comedic career impersonating JFK came to an abrupt end on November 22, 1963) who deserve re-remembering.
For example, in one essay, Rocca notes that Michael Jackson died on the same day as Farrah Fawcett. But because the King of Pop’s death overshadowed hers, Rocca turns his attention to the beloved actress, chronicling the smart, courageous person underneath Fawcett’s iconic hair, tan and perfect teeth.
Several essays aren’t even about people. For instance, he writes about the death of station wagons and the end of homosexuality being defined as a mental illness. “Death of a Tree” chronicles the odd saga of a rabid University of Alabama football fan who poisoned two live oak trees that stood at the symbolic heart of rival Auburn University. Rocca tracked down the tree killer, who served time in prison, and the result is a fascinating study of a sports rivalry and over-the-top fandom.
Down-to-earth and likable, Rocca is always entertaining and often funny, admitting, for instance, that “the only real downside to the premise of this book is that I can’t write about Barbra Streisand. Because, as we all know, she’s immortal.” Instead, he writes about Fannie Brice, whom Streisand played in Funny Girl. Rocca’s heart is often on his sleeve, as when writing about Audrey Hepburn, whom he once caught a glimpse of in Macy’s when he worked there selling perfume. He remembers that when she “floated through, the whole floor became very quiet, as though the world itself momentarily came to a stop.” He writes a moving tribute to his father, who taught him to love obituaries and instilled within him a deep sense of compassion.
Much of the great fun here is this book’s smorgasbord style— its wide-ranging scope of subjects combined with Rocca’s folksy storytelling. Mobituaries may seem to focus on death, but the book’s real heart is Rocca’s lively sense of joy and wonder.