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Untidy Lives, Family Warfare

Patricia Sullivan

If you ever have too much of your perfectly happy extended family life, I invite you to sit a few days on a newspaper obituary desk.

That almost-formulaic paragraph in most obits that starts "Survivors include..." can be a minefield and one should venture into it with extreme caution. I'm sure a lot of family members think we obit writers are dolts as we laboriously work through everyone's name, as we ask about the length of the marriage and whether there were any other marriages, as we count up the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandkids.

There are good reasons for skepticism, borne out everyday.

Previous spouses are routinely erased from the family's version of the dead person's life. Decades-long sibling rivalries emerge as one daughter "forgets" to mention another or a brother excises the older sibling because s/he hasn't called Dear Old Dad in years. Often, while trying to ignore a relative, the person wants to include a caretaker or fishing buddy because they were "like family." And let's not even get into the pet requests.

Sometimes people say the dead person will "just die" or "roll over in his grave" if we mention a marriage that ended in divorce. I always try to suppress my natural wise-acre response: Call me if that happens. I'd like to cover it and I bet I could get that story on page one.

But it's the exclusions of immediate family members that usually spark a conversation here. Do the grieving relatives think that their friends won't know about the disowned brother if they don't mention him? Do they think that a public overview of a person's life is the place to battle over the step-parent they never liked?

What folks forget is that the newspaper is a mass medium and if the excluded sibling doesn't read, his or her neighbor, co-worker or spouse does. The attempt to delete another soul from the dead person's life never works, because invariably the excluded person is on the phone to us within hours, and we'll run a correction, which more people read than the original story.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  June 12, 2008; 1:34 PM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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Comments

Not only is a newspaper a mass medium, but often the obituary section is searchable online. I found out my father had died by reading his obit online. And, yes, I was not listed in the "survived by" line. Too bad the Lansing State Journal doesn't follow your policy regarding running corrections. My request for one was turned down with the comment, "We don't have time to go back and correct every little tiny detail in every obituary." I guess it was a really, really busy news day when I called. [eye roll]

Posted by: Joan | June 12, 2008 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree "survived by" can be a minefield (as the previous poster pointed out so well).

I've seen various ways an...unusual family situation can be handled reasonably well. Some divorced couples will say "survived by ex-wife" or "survived by friend," or something like that.

When my mother-in-law died, since she had no relationship with her ex, I'm pretty sure he wasn't mentioned in her obit.

On the other hand, while my parents are divorced, they're still living and are pretty good friends. I can't imagine that either of them would omit the other from their obits in some way.

OTOH, my mother wrote obits for a magazine for many years...

Posted by: Laurie Mann | June 13, 2008 7:28 PM | Report abuse

I've worked on obituaries as a reporter at four newspapers; and yes, the survivor list is the BIGGEST headache the obit writers have to deal with for the very reasons that are detailed.
It's one of the reasons my newspaper went to a paid obituary procedure about a year ago.
If the link works, here is a column that my editor Deb Saul wrote for The Monroe Evening News when our new policy went into effect:
http://monroenews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070728/SAULLOCCOL/107280032/-1/COLUMNISTS


Posted by: Paula Wethington | June 22, 2008 8:55 PM | Report abuse

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