As Americans become more accustomed to pictures of dead bodies in the media, we are told less and less of the details of ordinary citizens’ deaths. Only major newspapers, like The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, still pay writers to report obituaries.
In smaller cities and most small towns, the obituaries are now completely the domain of the deceased person’s family. No one is checking the facts as sent in by the funeral director—a practice that was standard for many years.
Newspapers that once devoted staff time to a neutral reporting of a dead person’s accomplishments are more likely now to publish a tribute put together by a relative. I have read obits that call the surviving children “gifts,” or list hobbies and psychological attributes. What’s wrong with this? A lot.
These obituaries rarely explain the first fact everyone wants to know, which is how the person died. At parties, people will always say that they believe that the cause of death is too delicate to print, but everyone’s eyes dart to the end of death notices to see which charity is accepting donations in the hope that this will offer a clue to what killed their friends.
They also omit controversy. America is supposed to be the land of open information. When someone in your town or city dies, it’s news. If the family writes the obituary, and no one at the newspaper checks the facts, it could omit something significant to the community, even something relatively minor like a publicized fight on a town committee years back, or something major, like a murder conviction. Such obituaries function only as glowing tributes. Glowing tributes are fine. But the public life a person led, however small in however small a town, can demand more than the glowing side.
When famous people break the law, express themselves in unpopular ways, get into accidents or do notable things — Americans expect to read about them. It’s only the ordinary people we want to spare, preferring instead to talk about them as gossip. We shouldn’t spare the ordinary people from the true facts of their lives, because there is no proper definition of an ordinary person.
Newspapers are struggling, but obituaries are no place to economize. Everyone reads about the dead.
Bring back the reported obituary as a staple of newspapers.