"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
- Mark Twain, upon learning that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal.
Obituaries have long been a staple of American newspapers, even being the only items some people read each day.
As someone who writes a column, that’s a practice I would heartily discourage.
Still, I can understand those who say they look at the obituaries first thing in the morning, and if their name isn’t there, they get up and have breakfast.
I’ve also come to understand family members who include unusual entries in the summations of their loved ones’ lives.
How many times have you seen something like this?
"Among the survivors are her Aunt Helen, Uncle Jake and her beloved cat, Fluffy."
For many years, newspapers have grappled with the concept of paid obituaries, that is, allowing folks to write virtually anything they want about the deceased as long as they are willing to pay for however many words they use.
Traditionally, obituaries have been free, written by a reporter or copy editor and edited just like any other newsworthy event.
Mentioning Fluffy _ or, for that matter, any other pet _ would not be allowed. A lot of papers also won’t include cousins, grandchildren and other relatively distant relatives.
On some of the nation’s larger newspapers, the obituary beat is much-prized because it gives a writer the opportunity to explore the lives of interesting people and to chronicle history.
But often, doing obituaries is the first thing a rookie reporter is assigned to do.
Most of those "obits" are heavily dependent upon information provided by the family or funeral homes and are done in a formulaic fashion to conform with the newspaper’s writing style.
The trend toward paid obituaries has been fueled by people’s desires to write what they want without the filter of a reporter or copy editor doing more than cleaning up grammar and punctuation mistakes.
In truth, it has also been fueled by newspapers’ desire for the money they collect for printing them, although what the paper receives is usually considerably less than what the funeral home gets for placing the obituary into the publication.
The Daily Star charges for obituaries, but prints them free for those who cannot afford to pay for them.
The question of paid or free-but-limited obituaries is a lively subject whenever editors get together to talk shop.
Recently, I saw a paid obit that made me take notice.
It was in The Indianapolis Star, and written by the father of a 28-year-old man named Nicholas Ryan Dunn.
It began this way:
"Yesterday my son took his own life. He did not intend to. He did something thousands of people have and are doing, using drugs. Drugs they know nothing about. Drugs recommended and provided by friends or strangers that are not chemists that know what’s in them or doctors that knew how much his body could take.
"My son Nick has devastated us," it continued before listing survivors "who have also been left behind in pain."
This was an extraordinary obituary that no reporter would dare write as the last written remembrance of a person’s life.
The young man’s father, Jeffrey Dunn, however, wanted to spare others the pain he and his family were feeling.
"Realize you have no more idea of what or how much you’re putting in your body than those selling it to you," continued the obit. "Those drugs do not discriminate by race, income, the status of you or of your family. These are those that care about you and those you care about. Consider them please! The pleasure is not worth the risks!
"Goodbye Nick, we love you and will miss you."
Indianapolis Star Editor Dennis Ryerson spoke to the father and wrote about it in a column.
"Maybe I was a little selfish in writing it," Dunn, 48, said. "I wanted people to know that (Nick’s) life wasn’t meaningless and his death had a purpose. I was hoping people would read it, and maybe help save even one other person’s life."
Mr. Dunn showed that even an obituary can be noble and decent and uplifting.
It would take a very compelling argument indeed, for this newspaper to change its policy back to reporter-written obituaries.
If comfort can be provided to those most in need of it at their most needy time, that’s good enough for me.
And if anyone wants to name Fluffy as a survivor, well, I guess that’s good enough for me, too.
Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.
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