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The Obit You'll Never See

Matt Schudel

It can get monotonous, but we do background checks and information searches for every obituary we do, even it it's a local person of no particular renown. Most of the time, we find nothing -- the vast majority of people lead their lives out of the public eye in more or less total anonymity.

Earlier today, I was preparing to write a standard local obituary of a retired minister when I ran his name through our database. Well, lo and behold, I discovered that our good man of the cloth had been arrested and convicted of a felony while in his mid-60s. Except for this one episode, about which I'm being deliberately vague, he had never been in trouble with the law before, had an upstanding record of volunteer service and apparently had a loyal following at his church.

I suppose you could say ministers are public figures in their churches and local communities, but this man had otherwise never been in the news and was not known to the broader D.C. region. If someone is essentially a private citizen, we give families the option of running the obituary or not. (Believe it or not, we don't willingly inflict psychic pain on people if we don't have to. Who says big-city newspapers don't have a heart?)

At any rate, I called a family member and explained what my reporting had turned up. The family was grateful to hear from me and decided, given the facts of the case, not to run an obituary at all. The pastor will go unremembered in our pages.

By Matt Schudel  |  October 1, 2009; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

I don't understand. Why would you even need to print this part of the man's life? Why do you have to run a background check? Shouldn't it be up to the family to print what they want, as long as it's the truth? He wasn't a fugitive and obviously paid for his crime. Now no obituary? Sounds like your contact with the family was threatening and they will not have the type of goodbye they wanted.

Posted by: suitelady_508 | October 2, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Dear Anonymous Suitelady,
Thank you for your comment. Every day on the telephone we have to explain to readers the differences between news obituaries and death notices. It's a very common misunderstanding, and I think that is at the heart of your question.

In The Washington Post, An obituary is not a eulogy placed by the family in praise of someone who has recently died. (That is what we call a death notice, a paid classified advertisement in which the family can say whatever it likes about the deceased.)

A news obituary, on the other hand, is a news article reported and written by the staff of The Washington Post about the full life of someone who lived -- in most cases -- in the D.C. area.

We include all the major facts of a person's life, flattering or not. We do not merely accept the family's word for what someone did in life. If we did, we have soldiers fighting in the wrong wars, federal employees working for the wrong agencies and people living in the wrong towns. In other words, we verify all the information receive, as much as we can.

That is why we always check to see if someone was ever in the news. As I pointed out in the blog post, most people lead quiet, anonymous lives and rarely make the headlines. In the case of this minister, however, I learned that he had been convicted of a sesrious crime that the family had not revealed to me. If we were to write about that person's life without mentioning the incident, the obituary would have been incomplete and, in a fundamental way, untrue. It would be, on a much smaller scale, like writing about the life of Bill Clinton without mentioning Monica Lewinsky or impeachment.

In short, obituaries in The Washington Post are subject to the same reporting and editing standards as every other article in the paper. We don't simply publish what readers want to see, whether we're covering the president or writing obituaries of local residents.
Matt Schudel

Posted by: schudelm | October 2, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate the family's anxiety. The note makes me wonder about how my criminal conviction as part of my 20s--some 25 yrs ago, may be treated in my obit which I hope will not occur for many years to come. In part, I feel that the grim experience of the time has made me a beter person, with greater sympathy for others and greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others.

In my case, the conviction was expunged long ago, but in reality, is there any black mark that really disappears from a government file?

I am also mindful that with the information age, a criminal record has in many cases become the contempory mark of Cain; a lifelong stain which makes one undesireable or ineligbile forever.

My hope is that we can become a society that beleives that people learn from ther errors and mistakes and that they expereince a personal redemption, if not an official one. I am uncertain what conclusions to draw from the family's decision here--I would hope that they would feel that this man value to his community would be of a considerable value that it would outshine whatever stain he may have had.

Posted by: ak1123 | October 2, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Good for you on contacting the family before publishing the obituary -- shows that, as you say, you do "have a heart." Sounds like the first responder isn't familiar with the difference between a news obituary and a paid death notice.

Posted by: mensa58 | October 6, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse

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