You could say I’ve had a lifelong interest in obituaries. It began with writing them, in the early days of my career in journalism, and continues even today. But it makes me wonder about the future of these re-caps, recounting and chronicling of someone’s life.
I fear the importance of and attention to printed obituaries peaked and began tumbling downhill coincidentally with the slow demise of newspapers. When my (soon-to-be) 9-year-old daughter is my age, will she still be reading newspaper — including one she picks up off the porch every day? (Well, the carrier hits our porch most days as she speeds by. That’s another story.)
Growing up in a society where more and more is done online, my daughter is in the minority when it comes to even knowing what a newspaper is. She knows I read one; I get grumpy when it’s late, and it has comics she likes to read.
Certainly, I’ve adapted to drawing news from the Internet. It’s one of the first things I do every morning — comb a couple of news sites to get a snapshot of what’s going on the world. The newspaper supplements that, but it also has Sports, a Living section, special sections on special events, a comprehensive Local section — which includes what is often more than a full page of paid obituaries.
There is a difference between paid obituaries — what we used to call Death Notices — and the larger-print obituaries, which are more of a news account of someone’s life.
This set the stage for a frequent battle when I was writing obits. Funeral directors would call the paper to submit an obit. We had a very specific style — strict rules — about what we’d say and how we’d say it. For instance, every obituary was required to include the cause of death. It was usually “short illness” or “long illness,” which pretty much covered the spectrum. Nonetheless, some families bristled when told they needed to supply this information, or the obit might not be published.
Other times, families had written out the obituary for their loved one, which rarely coincided with our style. We feared that relenting to those requests would set a dangerous precedent.
It’s a twist on the old parental argument against allowing a child to do something “because everyone else was doing it.
If we allowed that family to do it, then everyone else would ask the same favor.
There were several of us at the newspaper who began our climb up the ranks from the seat at the obit desk. Obits were important, highly-read news items. It was a good foundation for the next career step.
Newspapers today, the ones that are still around, still publish obituaries. They are few and far between, though, and restricted to people who were well known beyond their immediate family.
This has opened the door for much richer and colorful accountings of the deceased. The great majority of deaths publicized in the paper are what we used to call Death Notices. If a family wanted to dictate an obituary, they were encouraged to pay for a Death Notice, where they could choose their own words.
It’s not a coincidence that the plummeting income from and presence of paid advertising in newspapers can be linked to the growth in the number of and size of paid Death Notices in a daily newspaper.
I’m such an obit junkie (and diehard Native Delawarean) that I often go to the web site of my former employer and look up the obituaries that now appear online. The older I get, the more inevitable it becomes I will see someone I know or I am familiar with. They don’t call Delaware “Small Wonder” for nothing.
When I read (or at least scan) the paid Death Notices in my big-city newspaper today, virtually every one contains the same phrase: “Surrounded by their family …” I never would’ve have allowed that in an obituary I wrote. More curious, for me, is the picture it conjures up: Weeping relatives, or those stricken in silent grief, with the immediate family huddled around the dying relative like he or she is a campfire.
How did they get all of these people in one room? Were they two- or three-deep? What if someone had to run out and pick up a kid from soccer practice? What if someone had to step out to use the restroom, and the dying relative passed before they had the chance to flush?
I never had to worry about these things when I wrote obituaries. Maybe that’s why I think about them now.