Correcting Miss Manners
Birth, marriage and death are the three great transitions of life, and there are large questions of etiquette concerning all of them. Judith Martin, in her syndicated Miss Manners column, recently addressed the question of obituaries. (It's the third question in the March 9 column.)
The questioner wanted to know if it's permissible to omit estranged relatives from an obituary and to remove the "step" from stepchildren and describe them as "children." Miss Manners correctly noted that such a rewriting of history is "outrageous" and that "no reputable news outlet will accept it."
She went on to say, however, that it would be "perfectly acceptable" to include stepchildren, evidently in the manner the questioner requested -- by describing them as "children," not "stepchildren."
I hope Judith Martin, a former reporter at The Washington Post, will forgive us if we offer a slight correction or clarification.
She correctly pointed out that in a paid death notice, a family can say whatever it wishes. As far as news obituaries are concerned however, we have a technical term for what the questioner wanted to do: It's called lying.
We do not omit inconvenient children from obituaries because of family squabbles and because the surviving parents, siblings or step-parents want to erase them from history. Similarly, we cannot allow anyone to eliminate a previous spouse from an obituary. Yes, it may have been a painful divorce, but an obituary is not a place to settle scores. All marriages are significant events in a person's life and must be accounted for.
Similarly, people often request that we include stepchildren as lineal descendants -- "He considered them his own!" -- but that is something we cannot do. We're happy everyone in the family got along, but there's no stigma in being stepchildren, and we have to keep the record straight.
People use obituaries as historical and genealogical records, and we cannot allow the whims and internal frictions of families to alter history.
| March 10, 2011; 10:56 AM ET
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