Is it an obit or a death notice?

February 25, 2016

By Kay Powell
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

“She was married twice and had three children by the brother-in-law of one of her husbands.”

Details capturing the life of the dead make obits a destination in newspapers and draw eyeballs online.

An obituary is a news story written by a reporter.

A death notice is written by or for the family.

Though the terms tend to be used interchangeably, there is a difference.

An obituary is written for the reader. It is not a eulogy. It’s not a biography. It’s a news story and should be written to the same journalistic standards as any other news story. It tells the truth. That’s why the academic’s obit cited above includes the interesting detail about her private life.

A death notice portrays the dead any way the writer chooses. Most are a predictable chronology, resumé and list of survivors.

The universal component in both obituaries and death notices is naming survivors, according to a 2003 study of each in The New York Times.

Obits that readers strongly identify with are those about ordinary people. Important does not equate to interesting. Every newspaper sets its own policy for obituaries.

The best obits tell the truth. They capture the personality of the dead person through good interviewing and include outside voices, lively quotes, details, no clichés, and possibly reveal something not generally known about the subject.

The obit includes basic information—name, age, cause of death, city of residence, survivors and service plans. The first questions anyone asks when he or she hears of a death are, “How old was she?” and “What did she die of?” It is the reporter’s job to answer questions, not raise them.

It is not uncommon for a family death notice to omit a basic piece of information the reader wants and needs. In an obit this information must be accurate. Step-children and step-parents, for example, are identified as such. Ex-spouses and pets are not survivors.

Obituaries are a good read when the reporter goes for revealing details and quotes. “He was goofy and non-graceful, but he was like lightning in water. He was a goofball at everything else. He would trip over his own feet. When he would get in the water, he was a speed demon.” Or, “If her husband dozed off early, she handed out washable markers for her children to decorate him with ….” Or, “We still haven’t gotten over the fact this straight-laced individual had this insanity about him.”

Whether it’s an obituary or a death notice, people want to be remembered as they really were—honestly, warts and all, according to newly released research by a team of University of Virginia psychologists. Give a family the opportunity to comment when something unseemly is included in the obit.

Obituaries hold a unique place in the newsroom. They are news stories, which are snapshot personality profiles, which are feature stories. They are a destination for readers.

A subset of obituaries is the long story, sometimes called a life story, of 800 or more words. Almost every day, her newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times, publishes a full-page long story obituary on someone with a Chicago connection, said award-winning obit writer Maureen O’Donnell, head of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. As space shrinks, fewer newspapers feature regular long story obits.

Enter the Internet. Obituaries and death notices are reaching their widest readership through online outlets, primarily Legacy.com. More families are writing unique death notices.

Family-written death notices, such as those for Dorothy Gibson Cully and Harry Stamps have raised the bar. Although those two are delightful reads, other families seek revenge through death notices.

Josie Anello’s death notice listed her survivors as son, A.J., “who loved and cared for her,” daughter, Ninfa, who “betrayed her trust,” and son, Peter, who “broke her heart.” Dolores Aguilar’s family wrote that “her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”

When the family writes the death notice, two different people can emerge, as happened with the death of Melodi Dawn Knapp. Melodi’s partner and her mother wrote one death notice. Her father, who could not accept that his daughter was a lesbian, wrote another. The two death notices ran in the Dallas Morning News, each with a different photo, list of survivors and funeral plans. Except for the name, the death notices could have been written for two different people.

Sometimes a newspaper refuses to publish a death notice, pulls one it has published online, or regrets running a family’s death notice. Based on the University of Virginia psychologists’ research, the bar for this should be exceptionally high.

Although obits adhere to journalistic standards, families go where they wish. The family-written death notice is an American folk art form. Journalists tell the reader that someone died. Families write, “On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1996, God saw fit for Brother Morris Sloane Sr. to tell him all about it.”

Obits create a sense of community and give readers a sense of ownership in the newspaper. Obits are at the top of the list for increasing readership, according to Medill School of Journalism research.

Obituaries are more than worth the space devoted to them. © Kay Powell 2016

 

Kay Powell, aka Doyenne of the Death Beat, is the retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution obits editor and former state news editor of the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times. She has written more than 2,000 obits involving more than 12,000 interviews.

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