by Jnana Hodson
I never intended my professional career to end up with editing obituaries. “Who did you offend?” my colleagues wondered as I was scheduled to the shift week after week. Yes, it’s a job I could have done straight out of high school, forget the university honors or political science degree and urban studies certificate or my writing skills as a novelist and poet. It’s an almost paint-by-the-numbers task, converting the text families or funeral home directors fancy into a format my employer demanded (at least until recently) – and I was caught in the middle. Yet, make an error in an obituary, and the family remembers for decades, so precision is essential. On top of it, many nights are pressed for time – I needed eight minutes, minimum, for the actually editing, but had only six or even four, interrupted by phone calls. Mistakes will happen. Then it’s on to do the paginating, the puzzle of fitting the obits around the advertisements on the page and sending it on to the presses. Again, there’s no room for error – they’ve already been cut to specification.
Much of the work is repetitive. “WWII” becomes “World War II,” the year after a date takes a closing comma, as does the state after a city, and there’s a hyphen in “great-grandchildren” – these are things few people do in their submissions. Others turn up with alarming repetition: “formally of” a town, rather that “formerly,” or “internment” or rather than “interment” will take place. Things I must fix before getting down to the basic form itself.
Then there are the out-of-focus portraits, made worse by electronic submission. Nothing can make a bad photograph any better, but nobody will be convinced of that. They’re upset if you won’t run it, so you do and let the chips fall where they may.
I wasn’t alone in criticizing my newspaper’s obituary policy. For a long time, we charged a flat fee for a services section at the end, and considered the rest a news story, albeit limited to two hundred words. For many readers, however, the news interest is in knowing where to go for the calling hours or memorial service. The life story and family members are of more interest to the family scrapbook than to the general readership, and therein lies the friction.
What many really want to see in print is a eulogy – the funeral oration or at least an encyclopedic history of the deceased and family, where the tone is more addressing the deceased than the public. In contrast, journalism, as in a news story, demands “Smith” on the second reference – or in the case of an obituary, “Mr. Smith” – not “Joe” and not “Mary.” We’re not interested if he married “the love of his life,” since that cannot be corroborated, only the marriage date and location. We don’t use euphemisms such as “passed away,” but stick to “died.” Never mind the family’s desire to say she “went to spend eternity with her Lord and Master,” “quietly slipped into spiritual abyss,” “went home” or “to her heavenly home,” or that he “ventured forth to the Happy Hunting Ground” or “sensing a favorable tide, he set out on his final voyage” (what? The body was floated out to sea?). Paraphrasing the Bard, we’re not here to praise Caesar, but to tell the world he’s dead. Nor are we here to be cute or clever. When the submission includes phrases like “beloved wife” or “loving father,” I recall a Brethren minister declaring she’d never again do another funeral for someone she doesn’t know, with its implication of having been burned by the gap between some strange family’s projected image and its underlying reality. Then there’s the cliché, reminding me of those personals ads that say nothing insightful – “enjoyed most spending time with his family.” Doing anything in particular? Or does the family remember nothing? “She will always be remembered,” although people will forget – quickly. Better to admit, “She is remembered,” and leave it at that.
The out-of-state submissions are often puzzling. Sometimes, the only connection to our circulation area and its readership is that the deceased was born here or has a grandchild living here. Often, no mention is made. I think of the places I’ve lived and know I wouldn’t have my obituary submitted there – not even for the hometown where I lived for two decades. But that’s my own perspective.
Family-submitted obits are often the worst, and not just the ones delivered in nearly illegible handwritten script. There are additional delays and often long-distance phone calls while attempting to confirm the individual’s actually deceased. Without a funeral director’s assistance, the family often makes mistakes that will require later corrections. Should I mention the difficulty of trying to decode tangled syntax? Or one woman trying to call in her own obituary and offended that I wouldn’t accept it? “You’re not dead” seeming to her to be not an issue.
I’d rather we run them as classified advertisements, as the larger papers do. Pay for what you want. If you want to name all of the spouses of the children and grandchildren, you get to, unlike our longtime policy. My fear was that under our traditional practice, we were only offending people, especially those expecting something more for free. As it stood, nobody was really happy with this – not even me – and it’s too easy to lose a longtime subscriber’s loyalty here.
Sometimes, people go to great lengths not to include the age of the deceased, and it’s not always for women. He was a war veteran or they were married for fifty years, and that’s the best you can do. At times, especially for elderly people, the family is uncertain of the birth date, year, or place.
As I go, I also find myself reading between the lines. Signs of family tension are hinted when parents or wives are not mentioned, or there are children whose location is apparently unknown – or are listed as nothing more than “children.” Sometimes a spouse is reported living in a separate town or city, and I’ll leave that in. A sister writes from another state to request a copy of the obituary, and I see she’s not listed among the survivors. The ex-spouse and her children are named before the current wife, and his children with her are not named. As one small-town police officer told me, his department was never called out to a disturbance at the monthly New England contradance – unlike weddings and funerals, where drunken brawls break out. New Hampshire is, by most measures, a conservative state, and yet I’m struck by the number of families that want to name same-gender couples among the survivors or by fundamentalist churches having funerals for members survived by live-in companions. Between the lines, the changing social fabric becomes apparent. Listening to the police radio scanner, I’ve quipped that someone is a “live-in girlfriend” until they’ve had two kids together, and then she becomes a “fiancee.” But what does one make of “his fiancee of twenty years,” as if that’s an honor? The legal distinctions are blurring.
Occasionally, we come across a memorable description, a tellingly honest detail. “He hated weeding” is one of our favorites. Quickly, we know the deceased gardened seriously, and can sympathize. This is reality. As is the unintentional confession, “She enjoyed watching television and playing bingo,” as her major accomplishments.
I’ll admit finding the deaths of infants emotionally difficult to handle, especially in the confines of our format. Sometimes a family’s financial poverty is apparent, or one sees that it has lost other children, or even that the couple saw the child as a kind of fashion accessory deserving a celebration at a local nightclub. In contrast, I recall the experience Penny Armstrong tells in A Midwife’s Story, after losing the first child in more than a thousand Amish birthings, and the unexpected support she received from the funeral director. I feel grief and anxiety, too, handling obituaries for youths the ages of my own stepchildren – a parent’s awareness of the perils they face daily – and am grateful we’ve not had to conduct such a memorial service in my own congregation. On the other end, as we’re reminded, the death of an old person who has served well is no tragedy and can be an occasion for celebratory remembering.
Regardless of whether an obituary fills only half of one column or spills across three, there’s a basic tension between a family’s perspective and that of the editor or reader. For the family, it’s the only obituary of importance – and offense is easily perceived, especially in any comparison to the others, which is the reason for the tight formatting in the first place. One person has more siblings than another, for beginners, or more education or military service, for another. Never mind there are another thirty obituaries that day, and not all of them can be at the top of the page or have a usable photograph. (I’m repeatedly amazed by the out-of-focus shots families provide, without realizing the image cannot be improved.) The reader, in contrast, scans the page; few read every obituary; most turn only to people they’ve known.
Having genealogy as a hobby provides me with other insights into obituaries. I wonder what someone reading this fifty or a hundred years from now will be needing. The location of the hospital, for instance, or the telling detail. My wife and stepdaughters wonder what vanity prompts people to want to proclaim an individual’s accomplishments after the fact, arguing that those who are interested already know them. But I respect the concept of an eternal Book of Life and the human desire for one’s existence to add up to something meaningful and good. That is, the obituary turns into a quest for meaning in life, though I am among those who believe that search belongs elsewhere. Even so, over the decades, the structure and tone of obituaries have changed, and for those of us seeking clues into the personality of our ancestors, these particulars can be priceless. There was a time when families recorded a person’s parting words or when visitors coming from a distance were listed. Sometimes it’s simply high-blown language or a courtly turn of phrase. Even the boilerplate selected can be telling, as in one saying she was always a great beauty, even in her old age. The researcher becomes frustrated when the parents or place of birth are not listed. As an editor, I chuckle, seeing grammatical or obvious reporting errors I’m constantly fixing today while cursing a widespread decline in literacy.
There’s one exercise I’d like to commend – one I first heard about as an assignment for high school students, and something one might try with teenagers in religious education classes or retreats. It’s writing one’s own obituary. What would you like to see as your life accomplishments? How do you identify yourself and your surroundings? What is most important to you? This procedure can be a tonic to a society that celebrates youth and celebrity; instead, this attempt embraces the underlying mortality and lifts up the central values one wants to pursue in the conduct of one’s life. I think of reporters coming back from the assignment of updating obituaries prepared in advance for prominent citizens; inevitably, they tell everyone in the newsroom how delightful the conversation was.
In all of this, I try not to disclose that my own faith discipline discourages the use of calling hours and urges simple burial and memorial services, rather than elaborate funerals. If the coffin is in the room during the service, its lid is to be closed. I am one who finds the old funeral hymns to be far more beautiful and moving than any Christmas carol. When I look at an obituary, I would rather it proclaimed, like the hymn, “This is my story, this is my song,” while demonstrating the ways that life actively went “praising my Savior all the day long.” I might even close it with an altar call. But there are lines I don’t cross in a professional career. I wait for the other opportunities.