Columns

Yes It Is, It’s True: Death stories ain’t what they used to be

“Those are people who died, died. They were all my friends, and they died.” — Jim Carroll Bandobituary-newspaper-section-illustration-design-over-white-background-34631229

Ink-stained wretches from a bygone era will tell you one of the first jobs they learned working at a newspaper was writing obituaries. That’s changed a lot over the years.

These days obituaries most often are paid notices, in which the writer on one hand must pay to have it published, but on the other, can say whatever he or she wants. There was a time when obituaries were part of the news section, considered as newsworthy events, but that now is the domain of the rich and famous to get a news story free of charge.

My earliest days at the Albion Evening Recorder were filled with writing death stories, and I was charged with following a specific format. First, give the name, age, latest address and perhaps even the cause of death in the first paragraph. Use the second graph for a brief outline of this person’s life highlights. Third graph is for survivors, fourth graph is for those preceded in death, fifth graph for visitation and funeral information. The last graph, if necessary, is for where memorial donations can be sent.

Today’s obituary, most often a sort of legal advertisement, contains phrases such as “was swept into the arms of Jesus” or even “was greeted at the Pearly Gates by Jesus and his granddaughter, who kissed him on the cheek and took him by the hand to join a joyous family reunion,” words I never used in publishing the free obit, a news story.

But that free obit could get us journalists in trouble as well.

I once had a very agitated Albion College professor call me and berate me for not publishing his request to include among his mother-in-law’s survivors, “…and those whose lives she toucTroubling true stories_1hed.” I tried to explain that a free obit had to be subject to Associated Press style rules, but I can say I lost a friend that day.

I later lobbied fruitlessly for making all obits paid notices so we could “give ’em what they want, but make ’em pay,” just as what is done so often in these modern times.

On another occasion, there was a local young black man who was killed in a traffic accident was packing heat illegally in the car he was riding. He had just pleaded innocent in District Court to felonious assault and was out on bail. I just couldn’t resist including that fact in reporting on his death.

The black community in Albion rose up in righteous indignation, claiming I was racist and essentially telling local people that we had just gotten rid of another bad apple. I did include survivors, funeral arrangements and other customary obituary information, but his death did not appear among the other obituaries in that section of the newspaper.

A group of black ministers came a-calling to my office who express their displeasure and told me it was unfair that a man of color could not have an obituary like everybody else. Instead he was stuck with a negative news story on the crime page.

Looking back, I see that the issue could have been resolved by making all obituaries paid notices, but then we would have had to make the call on who gets a separate free news story and those who are no so well known and privileged.

Yet through the years, I have come to understand the importance of obituaries, especially in working with the good people at the Then and Now Historical Museum in downtown Dorr. They meticulously attempt to file and keep records of all local citizens and their life stories.

What is dismaying now, however, is that area daily newspapers are now printed only three times a week. So it’s possible someone can die before the obituary can be published in time to inform the community about the funeral and visitation so they can pay their respects.

To be sure, the old Wayland Globe and Penasee Globe were weekly publications, so that problem was more common in bygone days. But it was possible until 2012 for people to get their daily newspaper and check the obituaries every day to see who died and whether they had a funeral to attend.

Those who pay attention may have noticed that this on-line rag tries to publish notices of local deaths, mostly in Associated Press style, as soon as that information is known. I still believe it is an essential service for the local town crier, a function which perhaps is being threatened with extinction in the future.

Yet the histories of those who have lived and died among us still remain as important local history. But perhaps Henry Ford was right when when he declared that “History is bunk.”

2 Comments

  • Nice Article Dave
    I agree and want you to know that I appreciate the service you provide the community.
    For me Town Broadcast (AKA “Wayland Town Broadcast”), is my connection to the communities within about a 20 miles radius of my residence, covering Martin, Shelby, Hopkins, Wayland, Hilliards, Dorr, Moline, and more. Covering Planning Commission meetings, City Council meetings, School Board meetings, Sports events, reporting to all that could not be there, weather as fan or watchdog, reporting the news and events important to many and participated in by few, except for your drafts.
    Thank you Dave.
    VRG

  • In my newspaper, The Village Press, I never wrote that a person had “died suddenly.” Everyone dies suddenly. One second you are alive and the next second you are dead. I got a lot of angry comments on that policy but also a few who thought it was hilarious.

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