CNHI News Service


February 13, 2013

Like newspapers, obituaries have evolved

— When I left the newspaper business  a few years ago, I promised our news clerk that I would be sending along my obituary so she could keep it on file. That way, when the time came, all she would have to do is plug in the date.

Guess what? I haven’t followed through, though I have not avoided the subject. Obituaries have changed so much over the last quarter century; I simply have not been able to decide how to write it.

I know this may seem like a grim subject, and it can be, I guess, but it is something we all have to deal with at some point. You know, there are birth notices, graduations, weddings, career accolades and, eventually, obituaries. They are part of our lives.

It is no coincidence that obituaries are the most-read section of most newspapers.

Until about 1990, newspapers treated obituaries as news; they were published free of charge and followed a strict style that required factual statements. After the mini-recession in the late 1980s, most newspapers started charging a fee for obits. That led to a loosening of the news style. Families were permitted to say just about anything they wanted, since obits had to be treated more like paid ads.

That’s why today you often see much more than the traditional “who, what, why, where and when’’ in the first paragraphs of obituaries. It is not uncommon to read that so-and-so died and went home to join ancestors with the lord in Heaven. Years ago, you couldn’t say that.

Also forbidden by traditional style were adjectives describing how accomplished or great people were. Today, you could read that someone was the nicest guy in town and spent his life helping others. That may or may not be true, so in the old days you couldn’t say it in an obit.

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