When sensational obituaries go viral: a cautionary tale

February 25, 2016

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

Wilma Marie Voliva Black was not famous when she died last December at the age of 94 in an assisted living facility near Raleigh, NC, but through her colorful obituary, which went viral after it was published in The News & Observer and online, her life story will continue to play out whenever someone Googles her name.

Wilma’s obituary describes a harrowing birth that she was lucky to have survived, and it goes on to narrate her formative years, growing up on an Indiana farm during the depression. In high school, she was in the National Honor Society. She went on to marry a man with whom she co-starred in a church play. A military wife who traveled the world and lived in nine states, she had five children and was divorced in 1969. She loved to read books and magazines, and she sewed most of her children’s clothes. She moved into an assisted living facility in North Carolina in 1999, fell ill last Thanksgiving and died on Dec. 22, 2015.

Wilma’s life probably was not much different from other people’s lives. By the time you are 94, you have done a lot of living. But for most people, life’s grittier details don’t come out in their published death notices.

Here’s the lead paragraph in Wilma’s:

“Wilma Marie Voliva Black struggled into life over 94 years ago. Alone, Eva realized that her sixth child wasn’t crying and unwrapped the umbilical cord from her only daughter’s neck on December 11, 1921.”

The obituary goes on to describe a marriage marred by adultery and alcoholism, a sad existence in a nursing home in the waning years, culminating in a lingering, lonely death from sepsis and pneumonia.

The story closes with Wilma’s own characterization of her life as a melodrama.

“Wilma always said that her life seemed like a soap opera. Nearby stands the Indiana church where she had been baptized as a young and hopeful girl,” the closing reads. “Perhaps not so much a ‘soap’ as a modern day tragedy.”

The News & Observer pulled the obituary from its website and from the Legacy.com website Jan. 7, the same day it ran in the newspaper. To this day, no one—neither the executive editor, nor the classified advertising manager, nor the advertising director will comment on it—although all three responded quickly to interview requests.

Ken Garfield, a freelance writer in Charlotte, pens obituaries for people who want their loved ones’ life stories published with a professional touch. Garfield, who is also communications director for Myers Park United Methodist Church, is a former religion writer for The Charlotte Observer, where he wrote the obituaries of prominent people. He started writing freelance obituaries through his work at the church and today charges $300 for his services. He also does speaking engagements and conducts workshops on obituary-writing.

“I don’t do a huge business,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I write two or three obituaries a month, and I have written four so far this year.”

Garfield’s typical client is a family member whose loved one is ill and preparing to die.

“Some of my clients are in their 60s and 70s and they are planners,” he said. “They already have their cemetery plots, their funerals planned out, and they want to have their obituaries prepared to spare their families the burdens of dealing with it.”

Garfield is familiar with Wilma Black’s obituary. In its wake, local media have interviewed him about obituary writing dos and don’ts.

“As a rule, you don’t play out family feuds in obituaries,” he said.

On the other hand, he doesn’t do fact-checking.

“I usually take people at their word,” he said. “As a freelance writer, I have written roughly 60 obituaries, and I have never had a reason to question anyone’s honesty. Generally, people are honest and treat their family’s obituaries as sacred. They have a desire to get the facts right to the best of their ability.”

At the family-owned News Reporter in Whiteville, NC, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, 10,000 circulation semi-weekly newspaper, Editor Les High has one simple but strict policy.

“We always defer to a funeral home,” he said during a phone interview.

“The typical problem we encounter is when someone has been married two, three, four times,” he said. “The current spouse is paying for the funeral and submits the obituary through the funeral home.”

After the obituary runs in The News Reporter, the spouse from an earlier marriage may come forward wanting to run a revised obituary, or a brand new one.

“In those cases, we defer to the funeral home,” he said.

The News Reporter covers Whiteville and the surrounding Columbus County area, home to 50,000 residents. Five family-owned funeral homes serve the county.

“We have a close relationship with those funeral directors,” High said. “We keep each other out of trouble.”

Most people don’t hire a professional obituary writer. But as Garfield sees it, that might be a good idea.

“I am the first gatekeeper,” he said. “If someone told me their father won a Nobel Prize, I would look it up. The newspaper publishing the obituaries should be the last gatekeeper.”

Kim Evenson, a spokeswoman for Legacy.com, has seen a variety of obituaries go viral the way Wilma’s did.

“Obits that go viral may be those that the deceased wrote themselves, obits families have used as a platform to share the real impact of addiction or mental illness, and obits that included funny stories or unusual requests,” she wrote in an e-mail. “A common theme of viral obituaries is that they break the classic obituary mold—they don’t simply list a collection of facts about someone. Instead, they include details and stories that make the person real and give people something to connect to.”

Legacy.com, the publishing service that provides a sort of virtual funeral and family visitation, partners with funeral homes and newspapers to post obituaries and guest books for friends and families to sign, serves as a portal for ordering flowers, and provides other services.

Newspapers and funeral homes partner with the service to post obituaries online. The News & Observer is one of those partners.

“Our newspaper partners consistently tell us that their online obituary section is the most-read section of their site,” she wrote. “We are a top-50 site in the U.S. and have a global reach of 43 million.”

But Legacy.com does not offer fact-checking services.

“Our policy is that we will publish online all obituaries that our newspaper and funeral home partners provide,” Evenson wrote. “We trust that they are reviewing and publishing obituary content that best serves the families.”

Garfield, who has won numerous journalism awards, treats the obituaries he writes with the same professional standards on which he honed his craft as a journalist.

“Even though obituaries have moved out of newsrooms and into advertising departments at many newspapers, everyone should play editor, read them with their antenna up, and be alert for anything that doesn’t look right,” he said. “Obituaries are sacred pieces of writing that should be approached with truth, accuracy and maturity.”

Amanda Martin, a First Amendment lawyer in Raleigh who represents newspapers across the state, offers a piece of advice:

“As a best practice, every newspaper should have someone carefully reading the obituaries for content and meaning,” she said. “If you see something unusual, flag it for higher review. If an obituary contains anything negative about anyone else, it should trigger another review.”

The real story behind Wilma Marie Voliva Black’s obituary and the person who wrote it may never see the light of day, but the minute the gothic details of her rough, soap opera life were released into cyberspace, they took on a life of their own, and they will live on the Internet for years to come.



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