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Bad News in Obits

Adam Bernstein

After writing an obituary for Washington jurist John Garrett Penn, I received vastly different reviews from readers for how the story handled an unpleasant aspect of the judge's career. And it speaks to a larger issue of how obituary writers handle unflattering facts on such a sensitive matter as an obit, often the final word on a person's legacy.

While my obituary for Judge Penn highlighted many admirable parts of his life's work, one could not ignore the fact that he had a backlog of cases so staggering, over so long a time span, that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rebuked him. The Washington Post also wrote a deeply critical editorial that singled out the judge.

Obit writers routinely navigate in such delicate waters, trying to present an accurate but fair account of a life. We include all sorts of details that readers might find unpleasant, ranging from cause of death to previous marriages. Many families and friends insist on presenting the public-relations version of a life, but that is fair neither to the deceased nor to a broad readership.

Six years ago, a family of a white Prince George's County judge became irate when we included in his obituary the racially offensive remarks he made while presiding over a 1967 manslaughter trial involving a black defendant. It made news -- lots of it-- at the time. Politicians castigated the judge, but he remained on the bench because a state judicial commission did not consider his conduct egregious.

At times, it can seem like our trade is all about unearthing time capsules. Even the ugly remarks from the PG County judge can serve a purpose -- to illustrate vividly an era that, thankfully, has largely faded.

Yet there remain many surprises in obit writing when it comes to noting unflattering details. A colleague, now retired, wrote an admiring feature obit about a man for our "Local Life" Sunday profile. The second wife loved it, even sent him a flower bouquet. The first wife, however, wrote a hostile letter to a top editor, complaining that we had been far too kind to her [expletive] of an ex-husband.

I suggested my friend send the bouquet to the first wife, but he wisely declined.

By Adam Bernstein |  September 14, 2007; 12:37 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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It is interesting to me that American obits are much more respectful of the subject than British obits, which will happily say things like, "Known for his prodigious drinking and unwillingness to pick up the tab...." Slate had a nice piece about that a few years ago. I don't think it is the job of an obit to put only the details that make the subject's family feel proud. And I think your two examples are exactly the kinds of details that should be included -- they provide a fuller picture of one man whose dedication to full consideration of the issues had the unfortunate effect of causing delays and another who was able to cast off the influences of his youth to become a fuller and more open-minded person. Good for both of them for being that way and good for you for including those facts.

I was just asked to provide anecdotes for a tribute to a friend who is, thankfully, not ready for an obit, just receiving an award. I would love to hear what you consider the ideal anecdotes or quotes to give a sense of a person. I am thinking of Cary Grant's great line about Grace Kelly: "She is not the kind of person to whom anecdotes happen."

Posted by: Nell | September 15, 2007 5:10 PM

Best quotation ever was from Billy Wilder as he wooed his future wife: "I'd worship the ground you walk on, if only you lived in a better neighborhood."

Posted by: Adam | September 15, 2007 6:56 PM

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