The Obit Debate

A reader softens the “Fuck Old Media” thread:

Let me say first that for years I was opposed to charging for obituaries. I think obituaries are a public service. At least newspapers in the area where I live will publish short obits for free, although I think the number of lines allowed for the obit are too short – 12 to 16 lines as I recall, based on the standard column width at the paper.

However, having dealt with some difficult relatives and having seen other newsroom employees deal with toxic families and their obituary issues while I worked as a reporter and editor, I now think papers should offer a decent free alternative (more like 20 to 26 lines) and a paid option. This is because families have gotten increasingly controlling about the information presented.

Many families object to standard Associated Press edits – or at least the funeral director claims the family does. In addition, some resist fact-checking. For instance, the family members put in the current name of the high school when the 80-year-old deceased graduated from its predecessor with a different or simpler name. Military details and rank may be garbled. Often the cause of death is omitted these days. The names of former employers may be misspelled. The newspapers I have experience with have had first wives storm into the newsroom because the second wife or current girlfriend left the first wife out of the obituary. In the days before paid obits when pets were not included, people had tantrums because the list of survivors didn’t include Fluffy or Rover.

In self defense, the newspapers I know require the obituary to be submitted through a funeral home; it can’t come directly from the family. This helps avoid prank obits and also means that the people who are paying the funeral bills are controlling the obituary. There’s no ideal solution when a family has nasty, internal divisions and competing ideas about an obituary.

In an age when people want to mention things that weren’t part of conventional obituaries a generation ago – the favorite baseball or football team of the deceased, a person’s hobbies or delight in grandchildren, or the names of pets that predeceased the departed human – a paid obituary allows a fuller portrait of the person who died. Of course, it also allows for sentimental and religious flights of fancy, such as obituaries that talk about how the deceased is “greatly missed” or cradled in the loving arms of angels.

Obituaries would be better if funeral directors actually knew how to punctuate and edit their own writing. Often the obits I dealt with had only a few errors, but often there was resistance to any change. Then, if changes needed to be made, the funeral home would be on the line requesting a free do-over. It became easier to run the obit as submitted, because if no changes were made, then the funeral home clearly had to pay for the rerun when a fact was wrong or a relative left out.

Your reader was right to want the World War II service noted in the obituary. A conventional obit would have done that. The family might also have tried to contact the paper to see if a story might have been written, so that the paid obit could have been shorter. Families don’t know this stuff, but the funeral directors should.

There have been a bunch of deaths in my family in the last few years, including my spouse, so I’m more aware of funeral costs and obituary costs than I want to be. Where I live, that obituary charge sounds about right, and the staff at the paper can and will explain how it was calculated. In fact, one place I worked required payment before they’d run the obit, so the family or at least the funeral director was aware of the cost. Some funeral directors write and place obits and top up the cost, partly because they can and partly because it takes staff time to collectt the information, write, edit, contact the paper, make payments and so on.

I’m sorry the family was so upset by the charge. That’s the worst part of the process of handling obituaries for a paper. If the corporation insists on payment, an employee who disagrees can’t tell the family that, even when the employee understands their resentment and grief. Sometimes a good editor can help cut the obituary down to decrease the cost without missing the important parts of the person’s life and character. The family doesn’t generally get to discuss this with the good editor, however, and the funeral director may not have the time nor want to be the go-between on edits.

Finally, don’t save the historical record for the obituary. I’d encourage people with older relatives who’ve led full lives to encourage some kind of record about that life before the person dies. A World War II pilot in some school districts might be avidly interviewed by high school students, for instance, or could contribute to an oral history at a service museum or local historical society. If nothing else, videos of the older person telling their story can be passed down to family members who never had the opportunity to hear those stories in person, and transcripts can be made so there’s a paper record in case the video is lost.

Again, my condolences to your reader and the family. Dealing with a death in the family involves many details, and not all families receive helpful guidance.