Obits are longer — and better — than in the old days

Published 4:25 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There have been huge changes in journalism since I first walked into a newsroom in the mid-1960s — and not just in technology, though those have been galactical.

Writing styles have also changed, or perhaps more accurately, come and gone. We old timers learned — and clung tenaciously to — the inverted pyramid in which we laid out the important elements of the story in the lede (how we came to call it that and not the “lead” is another story entirely). Supporting information followed in subsequent paragraphs.

Numerous journalism professors have tried to drive a stake in the heart of the inverted pyramid, favoring numerous “news feature” approaches, some of which can be quite effective in the hands of a talented writer. But the old style hangs around today like the old veteran that it is, used by competent news writers to tell the story straight up and to the point. There’s plenty of room for creativity in this style and there always has been. It’s a matter of “nailing” the substance of the news, then fleshing it out in an orderly — and interesting — fashion.

Of all the writing changes during the past half century, though, few have been as dramatic as the style of obituaries, or obits as they are universally known.

Obituaries were originally much shorter than they are today. When every letter of every word on a printed page had to be hand-set by the printer, the words that could be published were severely limited. There just wasn’t time or space for lengthy obituaries, so “Death Notices” were about all the deceased was likely to receive.

Technology drove the huge 20th century changes in newspapers, including obituaries. The Linotype machine, introduced in the 1880s, was a marvelous invention that allowed entire lines of type to be set mechanically. The machines revolutionized newspapers, allowing vast amounts of type to be set in a relatively short time.

Obituaries that included more than “Joe Smith died Thursday” were among the changes. Like all news stories, obituaries had their own “style,” and that style pretty much followed the inverted pyramid of news stories. Who, what, when, where and occasionally the why and how of a death were reported.

Other information was added as well. Joe Smith was now identified as the son of Joe Smith Sr. and Catherine Jones Smith. Thus, obituaries became a vital source of genealogical information. Joe Smith’s education, career and his survivors were added, and the modern obituary was born. They were still generally short, featuring only the bare bones essential to tell of a person’s life.

The exception was the “news” obituary, a more detailed story about the death of a prominent person in the community, state or nation. Newspapers and wire services often wrote — still do, for that matter — obituaries well in advance of a person’s death. I was working part-time in the Richmond United Press International bureau in October 1966 when Harry F. Byrd Sr. was nearing death. The bureau was responsible for covering his death when it occurred, and a lengthy obituary was written nearly a year before he died and set in perforated tape which was used to transmit stories back then. It sat on a file cabinet where anyone on duty could find it.

When Byrd died, it was a simple matter of writing a lede with the date and transmitting the story.

Newspapers collected biographical material on prominent people, even at The Smithfield Times, to be used in a variety of ways, but ultimately in their obituaries. The late William H. Sykes, a Smithfield mayor and businessman, called me on it when I asked him for some background. “You’re just getting information for my obituary,” he laughed. I was.

Obituaries of prominent people are still handled in much the same way, but it is the obits for the rest of us that have changed. Once written in the rather stilted and limited style required by newspapers, today they are drafted with a much more personal touch.

A half century ago, most people were reported to have “died.” Today, the word is rarely seen in obituaries. “Passed away” is the most frequently used description of death. A person’s religious beliefs are often captured when he or she is described as entering into rest, going home or finding peace.

The big change, though, is the personal touch so often found in obituaries. They often include favorite hobbies, time spent with grandchildren, favorite vacation spots and any number of other things that define a person’s life.

I do regret that the genealogical information seems to be less important today. Some obituaries don’t even include a birth date, making it impossible to know how long a person lived.

By and large, though, I think the changes in obituary writing are healthy and positive. Adding such personal touches can be a great comfort to grieving families and friends, and even a window on what’s important to us as a society.

 

The ‘lede’

Lede came to be the accepted spelling of a story’s first paragraph to avoid confusion. Lead, the word most folks would use to announce the beginning of a story, is pronounced leed or led, depending on its use. In the context of a newsroom during much of the last century, the “led” pronunciation referred to the metal type that was the physical embodiment of a page of type.

When editing news copy or other newsroom correspondence, the need to avoid confusion led to the use of “lede” to describe the top of a news story, and “led” to describe the metal being used to set that story in type.

There is no lead (led) used in newspaper production today, but the “lede” remains, a beloved tribute to the golden age of the American newsroom.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.