Thursday, September 26, 2013
The Town Where Nobody Dies
I was looking through the obituary section of the local newspaper the other day (something I do with increasing regularity, checking to see how many of the players are younger than I am) when I realized something jarring.
Out of the seven or eight people in that day’s report, nobody died.
Most of them “passed away” or “passed on,” euphemisms from which my first managing editor quickly weaned me. One of the departed, if memory serves, came to rest in the arms of God, Jesus, or both, to which the same managing editor would have asked, “Who’s your source and how do they know?” There is no good answer to that question.
But that experience with the local obituaries got me to thinking about my years as an obituary writer for the paper (a job I actually perversely enjoyed) and the way in which the rendering of obituaries has changed over the years. Not for the better, I might add.
When the Family Calls the Shots
The biggest change in the past couple of decades has been the shift from obituaries being news stories, with all that entails, to being paid notices written and inserted in the paper by families and friends. That, in itself, tends to greatly reduce the amount of interesting information in any given story, such as that the deceased was shot to death by a jealous husband.
It’s all part of a general trend toward outsourcing, which is something small-town newspapers have been doing too much of lately. Instead of having a paid reporter write a factual obituary, the paper now charges families by the column-inch for putting in their own stories, thereby converting an ongoing expense into a revenue stream. In today’s business climate, I suppose few newspapers (or many other businesses, for that matter) can ignore that sort of financial imperative.
One problem (out of many) with this approach is that after a while, the handful of remaining reporters and editors at the newspaper stop thinking of deaths in the community as news, unless there’s a police report involved. In the past year there have been several instances of people dying who were active in the community and in the news back in their prime. Yet their deaths merited no news story, just the paid obituary. I shake my head.
Stick to the Known Facts
In my obituary-writing days there were other rules we had to follow. If the deceased was relatively young (under 60 back in the 1970s), we were supposed to try to ascertain a cause of death, especially if the demise was sudden. That’s something you don’t see too often any more, unless the family wants to make a point of the departed’s “heroic” battle with cancer or some other disease that’s respectable enough to print.
We also weren’t allowed to editorialize. The first time I wrote in an obituary that someone was a “loving” husband and father, the managing editor deleted “loving” with a vicious stroke of his pencil. (This was before computers.) “How do we know he was loving?” he asked. “For all we know, he was a miserable bastard who beat his kids and drove his wife to drink.”
The old obituary style was about strict accuracy and a forsaking of wishful sentimentality. When my time comes (not for a while, I hope), the obituary, if I have any vote in the matter, will say that I died, not passed away. I’m also hoping it says I was 90 years old, was shot to death by a jealous husband, and that a 27-year-old suspect is in custody.