Obituaries present unique problems

David Stevens

Obituary reports are well read in our newspaper. We know this because they generate more feedback than any other regular reports.
They also present a number of unique challenges.
Most obituaries are not compiled in the same manner we compile other news.
For most news stories, we gather the information first-hand, direct from those involved in the event. If we’re writing about a bank robbery, for example, we’ll talk to police investigators, bank employees, even the alleged bank robbers if we can find them. We’ll also review public documents connected to the case, such as a police report or warrant for arrest.
But we don’t interview anyone for the average obituary report. That information comes to us second-hand from the funeral-home officials handling the arrangements. Funeral homes receive their information from family members of the deceased.
There are several reasons we rely on funeral-home officials to do the fact-finding for us: Primarily time, but also to prevent pranksters from reporting the death of someone who’s still alive.
The formula works most of the time. Most people are honest when reporting information about a deceased loved one to a funeral home.
The primary complaints we receive regarding obituaries are related to errors in the published report. Sometimes we misspell names, sometimes we accidentally omit a survivor’s name and sometimes we simply type 2 p.m. when we’re aiming for 3 p.m.
And sometimes we receive incorrect information from the funeral homes, who sometimes receive incorrect information from families.
Once, a distraught family forgot to list a spouse among survivors. One might criticize the newspaper for not noticing such an omission prior to publication. In this case, the deceased had several children and it’s logical to suspect he had a spouse.
But many obituaries in our paper seem to be missing important information.
That’s because families sometimes don’t get along.
If family members in charge of funeral arrangements decide to omit other family members — or former family members — from the list of survivors, there is not a lot we can do about it.
We won’t knowingly publish incorrect information in an obituary. But every obituary is incomplete in the sense that a 10-column-inch newspaper article cannot possibly include all of the important information about a person’s life.
A committee of readers helped us establish policies for our obituaries last summer. That committee recommended families — through the funeral homes — provide any information they want to provide with a space limitation of 10 column inches.
When I find out that family members have purposely omitted other family members from the list of survivors because of disagreements, I will sometimes try to act as referee and find a way to make both parties happy. But the effort almost never works.
In the end, our policy is to accept information provided by the funeral home, even if we suspect it’s not complete.
What else can we do? We don’t have the time or the money to research family trees and conduct DNA tests.
Fortunately, most families get along or they’re able to forgive differences in times of death. I’m often surprised to see spouses and former spouses listed among survivors.

From the Editor’s Desk is a weekly memo to CNJ readers by David Stevens.