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News Obits and Funeral Services

Patricia Sullivan

Should news obituaries contain information about memorial and funeral services?

At The Washington Post, the answer is no. Our long-standing policy says since we're writing about a person's life on the occasion of their death, service information doesn't belong in the article. But from time to time, readers question that rule and they make some good points.

I had the pleasure of working over the past couple of days on a news obit about John Dougherty, a Washington lawyer who lived a very interesting life. His son runs startup news site in Chicago, and in his blog, he wrote about the experience of so many -- he never really paid attention to obits until someone close to him died. And he raised an excellent question: By leaving out the memorial service information, and requiring people who want to run that information to take out a death notice (which is a paid advertisement), are newspapers "treating death like a profit center"? I'd welcome your comments below.

BTW, Mr. Dougherty's memorial service is Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. in the Bethlehem Chapel of the National Cathedral in Washington.

By Patricia Sullivan |  October 30, 2007; 4:41 PM ET  | Category:  Funerals , Patricia Sullivan
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I've been a journalist for a long time now. I've written my share of news obits, regular obituaries and all other sorts of news articles.

I think the service information should definitely be included in the news obit. It doesn't take much just to tag on a few lines at the end of the story.

If their life is important enough to write about, their service information should be included.

The Washington Post should rethink its policy.

Posted by: Tom Parm | October 31, 2007 12:47 PM

To include funeral information in news obituaries would be a difficult policy for many papers.

Death notices -- the paid annoucements in which families can list memorials and contributions -- are a huge and reliable revenue stream. Newspapers rely mightily on death notices, and it's hard to see why they would give them up.

Posted by: Adam | October 31, 2007 2:46 PM

The current policy seems to be a good compromise. The Post doesn't write obituaries about everyone, and they don't guarantee that an obituary will appear prior to the service. For many people, a paid death notice is the only way the information will be distributed in advance, or at all (and I've noticed in recent years that some of the notices have gotten longer and more "personal" beyond the basic facts about the decedent's family and the service). But having the service information in a Post obituary would be OK, even if it's after the fact, as a matter of record.

Posted by: Cosmo | October 31, 2007 4:44 PM

It's also interesting that this discussion is occurring on Halloween!

Posted by: Cosmo | October 31, 2007 4:47 PM

I don't think that funeral information belongs in a formal obituary. An obituary is a news story about the life of the deceased, and as such may be referred to by students and researchers for decades to come. If the individual is notable enough that a story about the death or even the funeral is to accompany the obituary, the information belongs there, not in the obituary itself.

Funerals are also private matters, not public ceremonies; in no country is there a constitutional right to attend funerals. Families have the right to limit attendance or to have a private service. Publishing funeral information in a formal obituary implies that the funeral is public and that the family does not object to the general public attending. This may be the case but it's not transparently so, and it could lead to a major problem (say, if the family wants the funeral to be private because they don't want Crazy Uncle Larry and his fine collection of firearms to attend).

Posted by: Charlene | November 5, 2007 5:56 PM

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