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Who needs commas, anyway?

Matt Schudel

A couple of weeks ago, Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller had a column about the standard form of obituaries. Namely (so to speak), she wondered why obituaries always begin with the formula of "Name, comma, phrase describing what the person did, comma, and died."

She writes: "A standard obituary requires an opening sentence that gives the person's name, followed by a comma, a descriptive phrase, and then another comma. . . The phrase -- clamped as it is between those typographical pincers -- reduces the gloriously chaotic complication of a human life to a tidy clause. The magnificent flux of a fellow creature's existence is squashed betwixt the twin commas."

I had two thoughts when I read these comments: one, she's right; and, two, she's never had to write an obituary.

Keller's pique was occasioned by an Associated Press obituary of singer Dan Fogelberg, a once-popular singer who died in December at 56.

"Can't we come up with more creative and original ways to mark the passing of people such as Fogelberg?" Keller writes. "Why not a few lines from a song? A photograph. A splash of color. A riddle. A scribble."

Well, I suppose she's right -- which I'll get to in a minute -- but, first of all, I have to say I'm surprised that anyone could get so worked up about Dan Fogelberg. Maybe a truly honest obit should have run like this: "The wan, insipid, soft-rock warblings of half-forgotten singer Dan Fogelberg have come to an end...."

Still, even though we place different values on the musical worth of Dan Fogelberg, I think Keller's larger point is valid: There's no reason why obits have to begin with "Name, age, explanation of why we should care about this person, died" formula.

There's no reason, that is, except that it's what readers have come to expect. On the rare occasions when we've run anecdotal leads about an incident in someone's life, delaying the "news" -- the fact that the person died -- until the second or third paragraph, we'll hear from readers who want the facts of life and death right up front. Beginning with someone's name and a summary of his career is not just convenient for those of us who write obituaries on deadline, but it also fits our definition of news -- what happened, and why is it important? If we had unlimited time -- and were guaranteed the unlimited attention of our readers -- we might be more eager to use feature-style leads. (Actually, at The Post, we already do this with our Sunday Local Life stories.)

Still, it might be a good idea to take Keller's chiding to heart and experiment with the form to see if we can give new life to the venerable obit. But, please, let's leave Dan Fogelberg out of it.

By Matt Schudel  |  January 5, 2008; 3:17 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Well, I'm with you on Dan Fogelberg. A creative lead would have been far creative than the music. That said, what I like about the standard obit formula is its democratization of souls after death. Everybody gets the same lead. Something in that appeals to the egalitarian in me, and I do like the idea that at the end of the race we all end up in the same place, accompanied only by our commas.

Posted by: Downs | January 5, 2008 4:47 PM | Report abuse

It's probably just as well there is a standard format. If there weren't then we'd have all these snarky comments.

I liked Dan Fogelberg. CCR was one of my favorite bands.

Posted by: RoseG | January 8, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Dan Fogelberg. His best album was "Dan Fogelberg's Greatest Hits."

Posted by: TBG | January 9, 2008 11:38 PM | Report abuse

Dan Fogelberg created original, high-quality music. He was a talented musician with a beautiful voice. If you prefer Led Zeppelin, or Beethoven, that's your perogative, but it doesn't mean that Fogelberg's music is bad. "Insipid" is in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by: kbertocci | January 10, 2008 6:33 AM | Report abuse

Obituaries are no place to start telling the truth. Plenty of people got laid to the wan, insipid, soft-rock warblings of Dan Fogelberg. Not me personally, but I'm sure plenty of other people. That alone should allow us to speak no ill of the dead.

Posted by: yellojkt | January 10, 2008 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm sure he left a whole lot of greater good to the world then your sarcasttic, bitter over-analysis of something as simple as an obituary - to which the dead don't give a damn about anyway.

Get a life. A real one.

Posted by: sharie61 | April 15, 2008 10:13 PM | Report abuse

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