EACH week, our obituaries editor captures the essence of a life in fewer than 1,000 words. As the year draws to a close, we look back at the ten people whose lives, in some way, made a contribution to the collective story of humanity. They include giants of geopolitics, media, and culture as well as ordinary people. Click on the title or the picture for the complete obituary.

Shark of Persia
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of Iran’s Islamic Republic, died on January 8th, aged 82

In death as in life, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani defied categorisation. He was dubbed kooseh, the shark, partly for hidden menace, but also mockingly: his smooth skin sprouted only a wispy beard, rather than the monumental growths of the heavyweight theocrats. He was a stalwart of a regime dubbed an exporter of terror and heresy. During his early years in power, the death penalty was applied freely to dissidents, communists, Kurds and Bahais. Yet regional arch-foes such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia mourned his passing, as did the Great Satan itself, via a State Department press briefing. At home, embattled reformists felt they had lost their prime protector. Was his newfound commitment to reform ever sincere? Anyone who knew him, or Iranian politics, knew better than to ask.

The woman who never was
Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v Wade, died on February 18th, aged 69

At ten she ran away from home to stay with a girlfriend in a motel. At 16 she married a man who took her for a ride in his black Ford car, but she left after two months because he beat her. She lived on the streets, slept with women and men, got pregnant by the men. Pot, acid, mescalin, she did it all. Work was whatever came along: barhop, carnival barker, house-painter, cleaner. She got involved in the abortion debate first on one side and then, when she took Jesus Christ for her personal saviour, on the other. That made her famous, though nobody knew who the regular Norma McCorvey was. And maybe they didn’t care. She had never been right for Jane Roe. But she wasn’t wrong, either. Some poor woman would have to have represented all the rest. All she wanted was a clean white bed to lay down on in a safe place. She didn’t have that privilege.

Songs of the sea
Derek Walcott, the poet of the Caribbean, died on March 17th, aged 87

Over more than five decades of producing some of the 20th century’s best poetry, Derek Walcott found many local metaphors for his trade. He was a bent astronomer, tracing out the circle of time in the singeing stars above the mango trees; the careful stenciller of a flowered window frame, or the planer of a canoe; an egret stalking the reeds, his pen’s beak “plucking up wriggling insects/like nouns and gulping them”. Above all, though, he was a poet-mariner, a rusty-head sailor with sea-green eyes, “a red nigger who love the sea”, as locals said. His personal life knew the same flux as the surf: three wives, all treated badly, to his later grief; many liaisons. The one point of fixity in his life was his home island of St Lucia, where the indigo horns of the Pitons rose to the sky; where all was bright and present-tense, all the time.

The man for the message
Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, died on May 18th, aged 77

He seldom had a confrontation he wasn’t ready for, and his life was full of them. Everyone was out to get him, but they wouldn’t win. He would. Liberal elitists, jargon-spouting intellectuals and anyone who got up in the morning blaming America for the world’s ills would soon hear from him, and how. If somebody got in his face, he’d get in their face. On Fox News the screen flashed up constant alerts, loud whooshing heralded big stories, hot blonde anchors beamed through layers of lip gloss and commentators bawled at each other. It was a show; his show. But by 2016 enemies were emerging from within, in the shape of women employees suing him for groping and propositioning. He said it was all made up, but it marked the end of his time at Fox and the end, too, of his power. Suddenly, he was the one backing down and unprepared. This reversal of roles was death in itself.

From friend to foe
Manuel Noriega, Panama’s former strongman, died on May 29th, aged 83

When his lawyers claimed that Manuel Noriega’s indictment, in a Miami court in 1988 and 1992, for trafficking and embezzlement “smells all the way to Washington”, they were not wrong. For as long as it suited the Americans, the general was their asset. The CIA recruited him as a fresh-eyed cadet in a Peruvian military academy, and trained him in counter-insurgency and jungle ops; he was on the Agency’s payroll from 1967 to 1988, an invaluable conduit of cash and weapons to the Nicaraguan contras. For almost all this time he was also assisting the hemisphere’s traffic in cocaine. He was too useful to be stopped, until he wasn’t. He spent 17 years in America as a prisoner-of-war, with two rooms, a TV and a telephone. Those privileges did not soften the humiliation of being deposed, as jefe of his country, by people he had helped for years.

Lone-wolf dissident
Liu Xiaobo, China’s leading human-rights campaigner, died on July 13th, aged 61

“I have no enemies and no hatred,” Liu Xiaobo told a court in Beijing during his trial for subversion in 2009. He had every reason to despise the government; he was about to go to jail for simply petitioning for democracy in China and asking people to sign up. But the forgiveness he offered was never reciprocated by the Communist Party. Officials did not allow him to pick up the Nobel peace prize he won a year later, as the “foremost symbol”—in the Nobel committee’s words—of the struggle for human rights in China. He saw himself as a Nietzschean lone wolf, a nihilist, even a renegade, a stammering loner who would stand out from the crowd and shout; but there ought to be room for him, he thought, and people like him. The party disagreed. As his death approached, it mobilised an army of censors to scrub the internet of any expression of sympathy for him. 

Life as defiance
Jeanne Moreau, the great French actress of the New Wave, died on July 31st, aged 89

The moment Jeanne Moreau fell in love with acting was when, at 16, she saw Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone”. She was not allowed to go to the theatre, so she lied to her father and went anyway. To her delight, the play was also about a girl who said no. She said it again when her father, a few years later, tried to stop her being an actress by calling her a putain and slapping her across the face. The New Wave that swept French cinema in the lates 1950s allowed her to play complex, thinking women. She would not let herself be typecast. Any outrageousness she blamed on her English blood. It let her flout convention in ways which, if purely French, she might not have dared. When she became an international star, people called her a Grande Dame. She wouldn’t have it. She was a woman, which was title enough for her. 

Putting things straight
Heather Heyer, a legal assistant, was killed at the far-right rally in Charlottesville on August 12th, aged 32

To her friends, it seemed as if she was always sounding off about something. Why was the world so unfair? Why did one particular kid get bullied on the school bus? Why could her gay friends not get married? Why did Alfred Wilson, her lovely division manager at Miller Law, who was college-educated and hipster-elegant, get followed when he went to the store, just because he was black? She cried about cruelty and unfairness and racist insults. The election of Donald Trump made her feel desperate for her country. It wasn’t that she was sad by nature. She was bubbly, funny, strong-minded and, at 32, happy with herself. The sheer size of the white nationalist rally planned for August 12th made her feel, for the first time ever, that she really had to get out in the street. Suddenly, she had to do more than just argue. More than just cry.

Midnight and counting
Stanislav Petrov, “the man who saved the world” was declared to have died on September 18th, aged 77

The telephone calls would come at night or at the weekend, just as he was unwinding. He would lift the receiver to hear the jaunty strains of “Arise, our mighty country!” in his ear, and know that he had to get dressed, now, and get to the the base. “The base” was the secret Serpukhov-15 early-warning facility, near Moscow, where he worked monitoring the missile launch areas of the United States. Usually the work was dull. But September 26th 1983 was different. At half past midnight, the red screen flashed “START”. Despite multiple missile alerts, he reported a technical fault—correctly, as it turned out. His coolness had saved the world from nuclear apocalypse. Not that it thanked him for it. In his later years, he mostly lived on potatoes and tea brewed from herbs he picked in the park.

Living the dream
Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire, died on September 27th, aged 91

Whenever Hugh Hefner mentioned that his strict Methodist mother had wanted him to be a missionary, he got a big laugh. He got a bigger one when he said he answered: “Mom, I was.” But he was absolutely serious. As the man who brought sexual liberation to America in the form of clubs, casinos, Bunny Girls and naked centrefolds, he was a preacher and a prophet. But instead of “Thou shalt not”, the creed of Puritan killjoys down the centuries, his was “Freedom!”. He backed civil rights of most sorts. Feminists, though, were the enemy.