EDITING OBITUARIES

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.

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55 thoughts on “EDITING OBITUARIES

  1. It’s interesting to think how a person can accomplish a great deal and yet live very little, and vice versa. Life can be so full and beautiful when you recognize it.

  2. Lovely piece. What would it be if every person’s obit really proclaimed who the person really was? My mom had the job of writing the obits for the Daily Journal American, in Bellevue, WA, for many years. In a way it was like she was a guardian, or sentinel, of all those passings. Just by sitting with the story for a few moments you give it one more bit of recognition, even if that recognition doesn’t make it into print.

  3. This is really good. I wrote an obituary for my mother who “died” last December. I have not thought about the difficulties that an obituary writer for the press may face. Love the spelling mistakes. Some must make you laugh.

  4. Fiance of twenty years – that’s funny, in a rather pathetic kind of way. But I LOVE the idea of having “This is my story, this is my song” being sung at my funeral. It’s perfect! Congrats on the FP.

  5. Perhaps proclaiming an individual’s accomplishments has less to do with vanity and more to do with not having appreciated the deceased’s qualities before the event. Perhaps it is a way that those left behind cope with the separation. Once it’s over, it’s over. That tribute is a last chance for the deceased to be remembered or thought of.

  6. This is really great to read. Too often people over look the handling of these situations.

    I have to say one of the most fascinating books I’ve owned was “Obituaries from Barbour County, Alabama Newspapers 1890-1905 ”

    It’s amazing to read the details that were put into these. They didn’t just go over relatives and funeral service times but typically went into detailed stories about the cause of death (most due to drunkenness and bar fights) not to mention details about their lives.

    For anyone looking into their roots it’s so much nicer to have a mroe elaborate picture painted of pass relatives.

    Karen

    http://www.winterfoxes.wordpress.com

  7. I think until someone writes an obituary, he or she can never realize how much agonizing thought goes into it. I wrote my step-father’s and still worry that I left out something important. It’s something we all clipped from the paper and kept. We read it again and again when we think about him and take my words as fact. And they were. But they were also words written in grief, and will always seem somehow inadequate.

  8. I read the local obituaries first thing every morning in hopes of learning of a passing before my mom calls me.
    Things that disturb me: “Died suddenly at home”, in an under 30 age group often means died by own intent. Babies less than 6 months who ever even left the hospital. People who do not list the other parent of the children listed as if it were a one person job.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. It was an interesting read as I have always been interested (unmorbidly) in death and how people deal with it.

  9. I was thinking about obituaries as I am in the middle of writing my will and I was thinking that maybe I should include a sample obituary as this has to be hard for people to write. What do you think!

    • It’s a great idea.

      For one thing, some of the details you have at hand can be quite difficult to locate on short notice. When my father was declining to Alzheimer’s, I drafted his obituary and was surprised at the amount of time it took us to determine when he retired. We should have also included the nickname his coworkers had known him by. While you’re at it, make sure to have a list telling the family where to find your important papers, contact information, passwords, and so on.

      For another thing, it’s good for each of us to pause periodically to reflect on our lives — what we’ve done, the blessings we’ve known, and the direction we wish to continue. You may even want to have those closest to you participate in this.

      Above all, have fun with it.

  10. Jnana, Like the very first line of your story on writing obits. Two years ago I wrote a mystery novel, “The Covert Chamber,” and the main character was a reporter whose first job was writing obits. Reading your story brought me back to the hours and weeks I spent writing that book and what occupation to give my main character.

  11. Wow, who knew a story about obituaries could be so interesting. This is my story, this is my song….have always loved that hymn. God read.

  12. “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.”

    This was beautiful.

    You should be a writer or a teacher. Actually, I wish you had been one of my writing instructors.

    I’m moved beyond words, or at least words I’m capable of sharing. Thank you.

  13. This is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, insightful and truthful. Death is awkward for everyone except who’s at the center of it all, and when our walls are down due to grief, we sometimes reveal more than we would otherwise like. Bless you for your willingness to slog through the work every day and for using your gifts with excellence. While it’s mundane to you, it matters greatly to someone else.

  14. As a fellow genealogy hobbyist, I think you’ve hit on a great idea: Copy editing for eulogies! The local thieves will probably resent not knowing when the house will be empty, but obituaries are often the only insight people get into the personality of the person who died.

  15. I rarely take the time to read a blog of this length, but I must tell you that I started reading and could not stop. I can’t explain how the arrangement of words just really captivated my attention and I wanted to read more about editing obituaries. Loved it!

  16. Very interesting read. Speaking of interesting obituaries, did you see this one? It appeared in the paper here in KC a couple of weeks ago. It got a lot of attention. This guy had a real sense of humor 🙂

    (I hope it’s not rude to quote an obituary!)

    Quote for those who don’t want to click the link below: “Loren G. “Sam” Lickteig passed away on Nov. 14, 2012 of complications from MS and heartbreaking disappointment caused by the Kansas City Chiefs football team.”

    http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/kansascity/obituary.aspx?n=loren-g-lickteig-sam&pid=161109778#fbLoggedOut

    • We get a lot along the line of “she was an avid Sox fan” or Patriots or Celtics or Bruins. Many included their elation when their team won the World Series or Superbowl or … Still, the big loss can be shocking.

  17. I nearly ruined my neck, cradling the phone against my shoulder to take obits. It can be a tricky job. If you get an obit wrong, the family will hold it against the newspaper until the end of time.

  18. I am in charge of that task as well at “my” newspaper. The responsibility was literally just dropped on my desk one day when our news assistant decided being a news assistant was not her dream job and up and left for something grander. Anyhow, you put into words exactly how I feel and think about doing obits as well. I feel I should almost put up a banner at my desk announcing, “Mistake free since –.” But then I know it will only jinx myself and end up having to take it down shortly after. Good luck to you! Very well written post!

  19. My first job straight out of college was the librarian for a small town newspaper. Part of my job was to take calls from funeral directors and write the obituaries. My typing wasn’t nearly as fast as it is now and there were days I thought the phone would never stop ringing, as I raced to meet the daily deadline. Writing an obituary for an infant or child was depressing. I only lasted 9 months at the job and I will never forget it. I love write, just not obituaries. I enjoyed reading your perspective on this. Nice post!

  20. I agree that obituaries should say “died,” not “passed away” nor, even worse, “passed.”

    It would be commendable to have everyone write his or her own obituary. At least we would know what they thought was important in their lives. I’m certain that many of the clichés and trite phrases that are given come from families trying to cope with a loss while simultaneously attempting to remember something meaningful about the person who has died.

  21. The quiet spirituality behind your words is the most moving piece of writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. Thank you. I agree that young people should write their own obituaries early. The perspective can be startling if taken seriously. Like a previous commenter mentioned, one of my first assignments as an undergrad was to write my own obituary. I was 20. It terrified me. And then it empowered me. You have reminded me of this.

  22. “She was a housewife” was a phrase I often saw. I was an editorial assistant for a couple of local weeklies and I know exactly what you’re talking about. I always prided myself on composing a well-done, dignified obit. Staffing limitations and paid obits allow those awful embellishments that have become acceptable today … she ascended into heaven surrounded by angels. Ugh. I’ll make sure my own obit is prepared ahead of time!
    Well done and so true!

  23. What an absolutely fascinating read. I took a job as an obituary editor when I was 17, then decided to drop it. It was too emotional for me dealing with the families of the departed. Out of the experience I wrote a creative writing/poetry piece called “The Obituary Editory.” I will post a link to it below because I thought out of all people, maybe you would appreciate it. Thank you for sharing.

    https://surgicallyenhancedmannequin.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/the-obituary-editor/

  24. Enjoyed your piece on many levels. I must say I have a new found respect for your position, the things we take for granted….
    Also, because of a well written obituary in 1950, I was able to research my Italian Immigrant grandfathers life and family back to Italy. I found relatives living today and am going in May to meet them. Because of that obituary, I now know the names of my great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, their children and the children of my generation. The information I was able to get was ALL because of a tiny, old tattered piece of newspaper clipping from 1950 of my grandfathers obituary.
    To this day I am amazed that what may have seemed to be small details at the time provided me such a wealth of information. Some basic logic, determination and newly found research skills helped some. But it all started with the obituary. Thank you.

  25. This is very interesting. I was once told in school to write an obituary for a selected historical figure (not a well-liked one too…). I realise how the obituary is indeed like a life story.

    One other point in relation to how people give unusable photos. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me; many drift apart from their family, or over time lost interest in what constitutes this structure, that finding a photo becomes but a chore. As people begin to take photos digitally, film-photos become harder to find. Yet digitally-taken photos are not stored in good order. Hence the difficulties in finding a decent photo for the man/woman’s last journey. Sad, indeed.

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