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Bad 'Association'

Adam Bernstein

Why do we need news obituaries? The trouble with paid Death Notices is that families can claim pretty much anything, and who will be the wiser? Advertising staffs, like most of us in the news biz, are overwhelmed with requests for obits.

Generally families are taken at their word when they list such innocuous things as memberships in a house of worship or a local country club, or even military service. Unless, of course, the claims seem grandiose or deserve special research. We typically ask for proof of high military honors, for example. And it's easy to fact check membership in, say, a leading pop band.

But not always, as alt.obituaries newsgroup poster Amelia Rosner writes:

In the paid obituaries of the New York Times this week was the news that a member of the rock band The Association had died. As a woman of a certain age, one who can't hear "Cherish" without feeling every sensation of unrequited crush, I felt this was big news. There was an odd aspect to the obit, however. He had changed his name (significantly) after his decades-long year tenure with The Association. Ted Bluechel, Jr had become Richard Blue.

Nevertheless, I posted it on the newsgroup alt.obituaries. Much discussion ensued, and I immediately got an email from the head of The Association Fanclub. Why was I spreading this rumor? She had spent the day putting out fires! She just spoke to the "real" Ted Bluecher, Jr. and they were laughing about it. I did point out that the obit said he was in the group, and she should get to the bottom of it. So, what's the truth? Is this the boomer generation's version of WW2 war lies? What did you do in the '60s, Daddy?

By Adam Bernstein |  May 29, 2009; 1:12 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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I don't think deceit is becoming more common. Instead, I suspect that newspapers and readers are getting better at spotting lies. The Internet hasn't just made it easier to research false claims; it's widened the audience for obituaries to outside the deceased's hometown.

An example from 2006: the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an obituary on nola.com for a man named Jerry Butler, in which the deceased was described as a former Canadian Football League player. A check in the alumni book and a quick call to CFL headquarters confirmed that he'd never played in the league. That claim wouldn't have been challenged had the obituary not been published online.

But I don't think the problem was any less prevalent thirty years ago. An old boss of mine once pointed out that if every person who claimed just to have missed the Titanic had actually caught the ship, it would have sunk like a stone in Southampton Harbour.

Posted by: Blurgle | May 29, 2009 10:08 PM

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