Cocalico Corner: Burying the lead

By on November 24, 2015

In a business focused on the present and future — after all, it is called news — some of our time and a good amount of column inches deal with what’s past and with who’s passed.

The latter, of course, refers to the obituaries that appear in every newspaper (remaining in our own dying industry) on the planet.

Obituaries, short or long, are intended to leave the mark of individuals, usually in the papers of record, in the area in which they resided.

After nearly four decades in the newspaper business, I can pretty comfortably state that I’ve either written or edited thousands of obituaries. Some have hit pretty close OBITto home. While on staff at the Reading Eagle, I composed the obituaries for my grandfather, my mother, several uncles, and an aunt, even as the funeral home formally sent those versions in and a colleague would edit for style and content.

In those days, we adhered to a strict style that dictated what would be included in those obits which we ran without charge as a public service. And, of course, we also adhered to Associated Press style.

The days of free obits have pretty much kicked the bucket at most newspapers. But at the Ephrata Review, obituaries run freely, and sometimes at considerable length, as a venerated public service.

One of my duties here, in addition to producing the Cocalico section, is to edit the obits for both the Review and the Lititz Record-Express.

The obits I encounter here are a far cry from those I either wrote or copy chiefed in my Eagle days. Gone are the constrictions of space, which limited family, career, civic and religious affiliations, and survivor notations. The sky’s the limit here.

I’ve edited obits that can run to 30 inches. I’m not talking the obits of deceased CEOs, civic leaders, elected officials, or local celebrities. I’m talking obits of the guy or gal next door.

The length and content of these obits have created some equally lengthy debate in the newsroom. For those of us from the daily newspaper world (before, of course, the days of paid obits — actually advertisements — that are now the standard), we find the amount of space given these free obits somewhat stunning.

Nonetheless, as is wont with many community weekly newspapers, there is no limit on what can be included.

As I’ve edited Ephrata- and Lititz-area obits, I’ve come to notice that a lot of folks don’t die; they fly on angels’ wings to another plane, they pass through the doors of Heaven, they step into their mother’s/husband’s/wife’s open arms, they are welcomed by a bevy of loved ones gone before, they are enjoying the comfort of their new heavenly home, or they simply pass away quietly.

And, we learn, too, of what they loved in life: a good funnel cake or shoo-fly pie, a competitive game of Parcheesi, weeks at the beach, the music of Sinatra, Welk, the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, growing zinnias or lilies, a favorite soap opera or book or movie, a penchant for post-retirement breakfasts at a local eatery, the Phillies, the Eagles, or, Heaven forbid, the New York Yankees. And, of course, their favorite pets from long-ago childhoods to the pet(s) surviving them.

These tidbits are more than the “just-the-facts” of which we are all made: our parents, siblings, schools we attended and from which we graduated, lines of work and special career accomplishments, our spouses/life partners, our children, grandchildren, and greatgrands, as well as our key religious and civic involvements.

Including the basics can still make for a substantial obit, but those are the notations that fashioned the public presence of the deceased.

I like to think there is somewhat of a discernment between the public and private personas of us all. Social media has diluted that separation; I remain unconvinced that newspapers of record should do the same. Unless, of course, we’re talking paid obits/ads.

I don’t write any of this in disrespect to those whose detail-filled obits have appeared in this newspaper or in any others. Certainly, there is no disrespect intended to their grieving families and friends who may find comfort in these specifics.

But with all those seemingly frivolous details, I wonder if the true and noble character of those lives have been lost among sprawling words and paragraphs.

Call me callous if I don’t want the names of all my beloved pets who have passed over that Rainbow Bridge to appear in my obituary.

I’ve said to my husband, a former colleague and still a news editor, that my obit needs to be clean, concise, and containing only the basics of family, work, and public service. Otherwise, I’m coming back to haunt him, AP Stylebook in ghostly hand.

And, I might just bring along that pack of the favorite pets of my life — Teddy, Flopsy, Rufus, Snoopy, Red Baron, Rover, Little One, Tommy, Abigail, Benji, Magic, Pumpkin Pie, and LucyBelle — to make the point.

I’ll be happy to see them all again.  I just hope they won’t be too cranky that their names didn’t appear as part of my obit, the historical record of where I fit in this life.


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