[This was a guest column in Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the editing and publishing industries.]
My local newspaper recently ran the obituary of an obviously much-beloved woman who “spent her formidable years in Providence.” Like most large city dailies, my paper has long since jettisoned staff-written obituaries in favor of paid announcements written by the family of the deceased, charged at the not-inconsequential rate of $53 to $65 dollars per column inch. Although the paper’s web site maintains that letting families submit their own unedited text leaves them “in control”, I wonder if they are instead left in the lurch.
My on-line dictionary defines “formidable” as: “1: causing fear, dread, or apprehension 2: having qualities that discourage approach or attack 3: ending to inspire awe or wonder i.e. impressive.” One could engage in considerable speculation as to how any of these might have described this era of the deceased’s life, but one couldn’t help but have the niggling suspicion that this is not what they intended to say.
Few of us are skilled obituary writers (fortunately) yet we all mis-use words. Most obituaries are written on short notice, and certainly under emotional circumstances. But these kinds of slips are distractions from the purpose of an obituary.which is to announce the passing of, and pay tribute to, a much-adored and sorely missed loved one. I am fascinated by these reviews of people’s lives and at nearly 60, am, alas, finding more and more people that I know among the reviewees. Many of these accounts have made me cry (and not just from the errors). I read about a lot of people that I wish I had known but feel I know a little from their obituaries. How can one not feel warmly toward someone who “never did anything without thinking about how it would affect other people, and any animals that might be nearby”?
But given the cost and the emotional value of obituaries, I wonder if newspaper staffs might consider supplying a little editorial help under several headings:
Spelling Actually Matters: More than once I have thought back to the somber pronouncement in a local obit that grandma “has gone to live with the angles.”
Punctuation Perils: A judicious use of semi-colons might have prevented one writer from suggesting that the deceased’s husband and children were going to be cremated along with her.
Felony quotation abuse: as in: Mary graduated from “West Side High School” and the “City College of Nursing”. And its corollary, Baffling Capitalization Practices: “A graduate of NEBRASKA STATE UNIVERSITY, she belonged to THE HEART ASSOCIATION and the DAR.”
Hyper Hyperbole: Mom may have been a wonderful painter but were her talents really of “Renaissance proportions”? (And while we’re on this subject, what IS a Renaissance proportion?) As to the pronouncement that “All heaven is rejoicing at her arrival”, I’ll admit I’m just jealous because there’s not a snowball’s chance my loved ones will ever say this about me.
And I think it wouldn’t hurt newspapers to offer a few general guidelines as well. For example:
It’s probably better to mention the spouse before the cats.
Every family has its own lore, but sometimes that lore is best left in the family and out of the newspaper. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to mention that mom was aggressively wooed by a notorious mobster – and probably why the obit was run again the next day minus the reference.
Playing fast and loose with history: Grandma was undoubtedly a marvelous story teller, and the adoring grandkids (her chroniclers) a rapt audience - but maybe a tad vague on world events. Because if grandma were born in 1936, it was probably not likely she was a leader of the French Resistance.
Genealogy: One decedent’s obit claimed his ancestry could be traced back to the Vikings. (Honest mistake; I got suckered by that web site too.) Another claimed to be a descendant of George Washington - not good news to Martha, as she and George had no children.
I’m ambivalent about this request, frankly. The appeal of paid obits is that they aren’t professionally written, and without the filter of a staff obituary writer, express a palpable grief and heart-warming affection. I’d hate to tamper with what is often their guileless charm. But it just seems the price tag ought to come with a phone call asking if perhaps they meant to say “formative” (as in early developing) instead of “formidable” years? Which would still give them the option to say, “Hell no! We were scared to death of her!” But at least everyone is clear.
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