Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Shoptalk: Perils of Paid Obits

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Shoptalk: Perils of Paid Obits

Article excerpt

My local newspaper recently ran the obituary of an obviously much-beloved woman who "spent her formidable years in Providence." Like most large city dailies, my paper has long since jettisoned staff-written obituaries in favor of paid announcements -- written by the family of the deceased -- charged at the not-inconsequential rate of $53 to $65 dollars per column inch. Although the paper's Web site maintains that letting families submit their own unedited text leaves them "in control," I wonder if they are instead left in a lurch.

My online dictionary defines the word "formidable" as: "1: causing fear, dread, or apprehension; 2: having qualities that discourage approach or attack; 3: tending to inspire awe or wonder, i.e., impressive." One could engage in considerable speculation as to how any of these might have described this era of the deceased's life, but one couldn't help but have the niggling suspicion that this is not what they intended to say. "Formative" would be a good guess.

Few of us are skilled obit writers, yet we all misuse words. Most obituaries are written on short notice, and certainly under emotional circumstances. But these kinds of slips are distractions from the purpose of an obituary, which is to announce the passing of, and pay tribute to, a much-adored and sorely missed loved one. I am fascinated by these reviews of people's lives and, at nearly 60, I am, alas, finding more and more people I know among the reviewees.

Many of these accounts have made me cry -- and not just from the errors. I read about a lot of people I wish I had known but feel I know a little from their obituaries. How can one not feel warmly toward someone who "never did anything without thinking about how it would affect other people, and any animals that might be nearby"?

But given the cost and the emotional value of obituaries, I wonder if newspaper staffs might consider supplying a little editorial help under several headings:

Spelling Actually Matters. More than once I have thought back to the somber pronouncement in a local obit that grandma "has gone to live with the angles."

Punctuation Perils. A judicious use of semicolons might have prevented one writer from suggesting that the deceased's husband and children were going to be cremated along with her.

Felony quotation abuse. As in, "Mary graduated from 'West Side High School' and the 'City College of Nursing. …

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