Should you allow obits written by family, friends?
By Alana Baranick
Over the years, I've received countless obituaries penned by decedents' families and friends, who hoped to see their stories printed in the newspaper. Most were poorly written tributes, using way-too-many flowery sentences to inform the reader only that the dearly departed was a devoted family man, who always thought of others before himself.
The deceased may have been described as “hardworking,” yet the writer may have neglected to mention what the deceased had done for a living or to offer other biographical details for reader identification.
Some of these obits, however, impressed me with the author's extraordinary ability to sum up a life, making me feel that – even though I am a professional obituary writer – I couldn't possibly do a better job.
Should such obits be published alongside reporter-written fare?
With first-hand knowledge and a command of storytelling, these community journalists could paint a vivid picture of a loved one raising an eyebrow and tilting her head to get children to behave.
Or describe his windup on the pitcher's mound.
No matter that such good stories merited the attention of our readers, I could not ask my editor to run these awesome citizen-composed obits at no charge.
After all, they were paying me an hourly wage to write obits. I wasn't going to put my own job in jeopardy.
I saw a few tributes trimmed and printed in the “Letters to the Editor” section.
I remember one freelancer, who wrote a first-person account about helping her neighbor, a retired state senator, after he had locked himself out of his house. The story, showing the formerly powerful legislator as the befuddled senior next door, ran on the op-ed page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the state senator's death.
But I don't believe this fit the category of “community journalism.” Per the editorial department's policy at the time, the writer would have been paid for the piece.
Many of the long, compelling obits that fell into my hands ended up as classified or display ads, depending on the family's willingness to pay for their publication.
The Press in Avon Lake, Ohio, like many community papers, used to run obits and other citizen-written articles at no charge. The paper still accepts short event announcements penned by readers as a public service, but now charges to publish obits.
Even tributes to recently deceased community leaders, submitted by public officials, rarely see print these days.
Rick Hemmer, executive editor and general manager of operations for The Press, cites limited available news space for the change in policy.
“There's so much demand on our space, I turn down columns on a daily basis,” Hemmer said.
The Globe and Mail, based in Toronto, Ontario, and known as the national newspaper of Canada, regularly publishes obits penned by the public.
“They are often mini-biographies that can leave readers feeling as though they've had a cup of tea with the subject,” according to online guidelines for submitting obits for the Canadian paper's “Lives Lived” column.
The feature was launched in 1996 as a means of addressing the lives of folks who weren't necessarily newsmakers.
Initially, reporters found potential subjects in the paid death announcements.
Within a short time, suggestions from readers flooded the newsroom.
“It seems that over the years, it simply evolved from being editor-assigned and reporter-written to entirely reader-submitted,” said Lori Fazari, “Lives Lived“ editor. “These are obituaries written by people who know the subject best. It's just really personal stories about ordinary people, but everyone has an extraordinary life. A lot of times, it's people you can relate to.”
As the editor, Fazari reads the many tributes--most often submitted by children for their elderly parents--from across Canada about people who have died in the last six months. She chooses which stories will run, then nips, tucks and shuffles things around to create essays that show the subjects as three-dimensional characters.
“None of us has lived a blameless life and it is a disservice to readers to suggest that your particular subject is the exception,” stated the online guidelines at www.theglobeandmail.com/life/ facts-and-arguments/submit-a-lives-livedcolumn/article763026/. “We want to read about both frailties and strengths.”
Fazari advises community newspapers that consider running citizen-composed obits to establish and post guidelines and make sure readers know there's no guarantee that submitted essays will be published.
© Alana Baranick 2010
Alana Baranick is the author of “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers“ and director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. You can contact her at alanabaranick@ deathbeat.com.