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Newspaper Obituaries: Growth of an Artform

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Newspaper Obituaries: Growth of an Artform

 

BY MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE

When you’re a semi-retired journalist who reaches my age – 59 – you are no longer scanning the newspaper solely for obituaries or stories about local newsmakers who have died, in order to consider follow-up coverage of the life and times of the deceased.

You’re seeing if there are names of dead contemporaries and older people you might know, and just grateful yours isn’t one of them.

Though my name is on a headstone, in a Jewish cemetery in Montreal, I’m pretty sure I’m not buried there. That site holds the remains of my great-grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from Russia in 1868 at age 16.

In the newspaper business, reporters write standard obituaries that usually run in the body of the paper containing current events. That’s the journalism side of things.

Commercial components are the pages displaying paid death notices submitted by families or friends of the dearly departed, or by funeral home personnel.

My newspaper baptism was when I was an intern at a defunct daily in Brampton, Ont., more than 30 years ago. The city editor at the time had a small illustration of a revolver taped to the side of her manual typewriter – yes, typewriter – with this caption: Work Or Be Shot.

In those pre-social media days, newspaper obituaries were almost always as staid as the publications in which they appeared. The cause of death was often deliberately omitted, especially if it was cancer.

A mention of death by suicide was strictly verboten, as were references to mental illness or marital or family discord. Obits used diplomatic language, and no one was dissed in newsprint.

Today, all bets are off.

I’ve read modern obituaries mentioning cancer right at the top – or homicide, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or a car crash, or suicide, or a catastrophic brain injury or an industrial fatality. Many people aren’t shy about telling it like it was.

Today’s obits can be funny, unkind, sappy, brutally honest or offer an alternate take on the life lived. I recall reading one, in Nova Scotia, published above a conflicting obituary on the same page from a different faction of the same family.

Some folks write their own obituaries. Harry Flemming, a well-known Nova Scotia journalist and an outspoken political commentator, penned death notices for himself in two newspaper columns before he died eight years ago at age 74.

An American man in July 2012 used a self-written obit as a platform for a public confession. The 59-year-old acknowledged he obtained a doctorate due to a paperwork mistake, and admitted to stealing a motel’s safe back in 1971.

Talk about a managed mea culpa.

A couple of people have asked me if I will be writing my own obit, or have already prepared one. My answers: Maybe and no.

My wife and I updated our wills a year ago, with the help of a lawyer, 24 years after doing the originals. They’re not complicated documents, but getting my affairs in order took a back seat to the stuff of daily living.

When my father died, on Valentine’s Day in 2002 in Montreal, at age 78, newspaper obituaries placed by relatives or others were still mostly of the nuts-and-bolts variety. They’re short chunks of grey type informing readers about health, sickness, death and loss.

The section of the paper containing my dad’s death notice included 45 others. One woman’s life was summed up in eight lines of print published under her name. She was in her 87th year when she died.

If I do decide to prepare my final farewell, I’m not sure how many lines it will be, but it won’t sugarcoat the past. I get a kick out of elderly folks who look back at their long lives and say with a straight face they have no regrets. Not one. Amazing.

Contemporary obits have not only changed since the time of my father’s death, you might read three or four intriguing, well-written ones published in the same newspaper, or online, on the same day. Some families are gun-shy when it comes to the cost of publication, but others, who’ve submitted long goodbyes, are obviously not.

Should I take the time to write my obit, those who survive me will just have to manage the bottom line. I’d be honest, amusing (hopefully) and as succinct as possible.

My mom’s obituary, written by yours truly in Halifax and penned in advance of her death, included the following when it was published in The Gazette, in Montreal, in May 2011. (She died in Montreal, at age 81, after a brief battle with liver cancer.)

Her obit said that in the early 1970s, she was “one of the few middle-aged parents hip to the Latin sound of Carlos Santana.” A rent-a-rabbi spoke this truth about five years ago in his frank eulogy at the funeral home.

I think my mom, Lorraine, and Carlos would each be happy about that.

Freelance reporter Michael Lightstone lives in Dartmouth, N.S.

 


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