Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Death of the Obituary

My dear cousin Cynthia Noel Winrow Summers died last month. As the only member of the family with any journalism experience, I've been recruited to write her obituary. It's only appropriate, I guess. I wrote my own father's obit ten years ago.

Which means brings me to a subject. Obituaries just ain't what they used to be.

Oh, sometimes they still are. If someone important dies, that is, someone famous, the newspapers will still do their duty and turn out something professional-looking.

But once upon a time, obituaries were news, and the newspapers routinely wrote them themselves. Didn't matter who you were. If you were anyone noteworthy in the community, the local paper would assign a reporter to tap out an obit for you.

But with the newspapers getting into increasing financial trouble in recent years, what with the Internet and all, they have come increasingly to see obituaries not as news, but as a source of advertising revenue. Hence, the classic obituary has become the "death notice." When a member of your family dies, you have to pay the newspaper so much per column inch...and write the obit yourself.

Since most people can't write their way out of a paper bag, and have no training to do so, this has resulted, in my eyes, in some of the most embarrassing claptrap I've ever seen. I used to open the obituary page to see interesting things about people and their lives. Now I see bereaved families writing stuff like "Our dear Aunt Gertrude went home to be with the Lord last Sunday," etc. That's okay, but it's advertising, not obituary, And they make you pay for it.

So I have resolved to write a more-or-less professional obit for my cousin, as I have been trained to do. I did the same thing for my father a decade ago.

Cynthia's obit, as did my father's, will contain a precis of her life and achievements, plus a list of her survivors. No sentimental claptrap. Oh, yes, Cynthia was a person of deep religious faith, and I'll mention that, but her obit will be a short narrative of her time and noteworthy activities on earth, not a bathos-ridden advertisement about how missed she'll be. Of course she'll be missed. She already is. But that's not what obituaries are supposed to be about. They are news, as I see it, not advertisements. I will write Cynthia's obit as news.

We need to to get back to this, and newspapers need to begin shouldering their responsibilities and treating obits as news, not as a source of cheap revenue.

And that's my rant for today. On to breakfast. I have an obituary to write. And I promise to do a professional job.