A changing way of recording death

Published 7:53 pm Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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There have been many changes in newspapering during the past half-century, a lot of them mechanical. From lead type to electronically transmitted pages and now completely digital papers, this world of print news — my world — has changed mightily.

The way we communicate — the words we use and the way we construct them — has also changed, thought not as dramatically as the mechanics.

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One change in the written word has been huge, though, and I have come to believe that it was long overdue. That’s the style of obituaries. Having grown up in a more straight-laced writing environment, I learned that obituaries were to be written as factual accounts — date of death, date of birth, parentage, a very abbreviated accounting of a career, perhaps a noteworthy award, survivors, funeral arrangements and little more.

In those days not so long ago, obituaries were so uniformly dull that they frankly gave few hints as to the personality, the likes and dislikes of the deceased. The information was provided by families, generally through funeral homes, and then written or rewritten by reporters whose job it was to tell it straight without embellishment.

That’s not the case today and it’s largely because families, rather than reporters, are encouraged to write the final story about their loved ones and what emerges is as varied as the authors and the people about whom they are writing.

Today, we often learn what departed persons’ hobbies were. Did they like to cook, fish, hunt, go to concerts? Were they doting grandparents, did they have nicknames, were they flamboyant dressers?

Obituaries are, of course, largely complimentary. You will rarely if ever find Joe’s worst habits catalogued, nor should you expect to. An obituary is a monument to one who has died, and it can be more permanent than a headstone, looked over someday by descendants or perhaps even historians.

What you will sometimes find — and these are the things I most enjoy now that I’ve come to realize their importance — are “survivors” who don’t genealogically meet that definition. They might be a longtime friend, a special traveling companion, even a faithful dog or cat.

You will also quite often find a family’s heartfelt “thank you” to people who have meant much to the departed and to his or her immediate family — people like care givers, empathetic doctors, a nursing home staff.

Among the most prominent changes in obituaries is the description of death. Many — probably most — of us hate that word, but hard-nosed newspaper editors for decades insisted that an obituary report that Joe Smith “died.”

Some obituaries still report that the subject died. Interestingly enough, in looking back over several years of papers, I found that a majority of ministers who died were reported as having done so.

But most people today are reported to have “passed away” or simply “passed.”

Beyond those phrases, though, is where obituaries have become really creative — and even downright poetic.

For example, one family beautifully described the death of their loved one by writing that “God dispatched a band of angels to take one of their own to her heavenly home.

The form of death will even occasionally fit the life of the departed. When a Vietnam veteran who had struggled with the effects of agent orange died a couple of years ago, it was reported that he “answered his last call to duty.” What a nice tribute to one who gave so much for his country.

There are many more examples, but suffice it to say that obituaries have become more personable and more informative, and are thus among the most positive changes in a rapidly changing industry.