Monday, November 27, 2006

State of not-necessarily-holy matrimony

I recently wrote a feature obituary in which I included the fact that, when the man I was writing about died, he and his wife were in the process of legally ending their marriage.

I got the sum total of two complaints for saying this. One was from the wife. The other from an anonymous caller, who also called our managing editor.

When I write what I would call a standard obituary, I include a list of surviving relatives. No matter what the relationship between the deceased and the spouse was, the spouse would be listed as the spouse, as long as they were still married. And an ex-spouse would not be listed because we don't include ex-spouses, no matter how close the two were.

I did an obit a few years ago for a man, who had been living in an apartment with his live-in girlfriend for something like 25 years, while his wife lived in the house in which they had raised their kids. These two would never legally divorce. I think it had something to do with their religion. I listed his wife as the surviving spouse. I did not list or even mention the girlfriend.

I've done obits for people who had divorces in the works at the time that one of them died. Again, I listed the surviving spouse. They weren't exed yet.

The recent feature obit in which I mentioned the divorce-in-the-works was "A Life Story," which takes up half a page, has a 20-inch story, a small biobox with mug and three other pictures, showing the story subject at different times of life and engaged in different activities.

I don't often use up precious space to list all of the person's surviving relatives. If the deceased had five kids, for example, I would call her "the mother of five" rather than name all the kids. (Once in a while, circumstances dictate that I name them. But I won't get into that here.)

Also, when we run a picture of the deceased with all the kids, I give their names in the caption.

One of the pictures for the man with the pending divorce showed him and his wife on their wedding day. (I'm getting tired of running wedding pictures with these features, but this was an exceptionally good photo.)

So in the caption, I wrote that they were married on such-and-such a date. And that at the time of his death, they were separated and in the process of legally ending their 25-year marriage. That statement was accurate.

The wife never mentioned to me that they were getting divorced. I found out about that, when I checked the online county court docket to see whether he was involved in any pending court cases or had a criminal record.

Friends and family confirmed what I read in the court account - that if he had lived another two weeks, their marriage would have been over. But I really should have called the wife to address this. Or at least alerted her to the fact that I was going to mention it.

When she complained about it after the story ran, she said that, if I had called her, she would have told me that they had agreed to reconcile. I would have no way to know whether that was true. I probably would have put it in quotes.

In retrospect, I should have told my editor that we should not include the wedding photo. I mentioned the wife in the story, saying that this fellow met his wife when they both worked at the same place. That might have been sufficient.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Censoring obits for political content

When a 93-year-old Bush-bashing woman penned her obit in advance, she included some political comments that kept the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union from printing the piece for three days. And it was a paid obit!

Protests from members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society, who apparently knew the woman, prompted the paper to publish a slightly altered version (with the consent of her daughter) and do a story about the incident.

In the story, which ran Nov. 3, 2006, reporter Paul Grondahl shared the portion of Helen Sharpe's auto-obituary that "ran afoul" of his paper's guidelines:

She left strict instructions that there be no schmaltzy sentimentality of mourning, urging that in lieu of expressions of grief people should send urgent messages to their legislators to force U.S. signing of the Kyoto Protocol, then vote in such a way as to send Bush a strong message of disgust with his policies and politics.

At first, newspaper ad reps tried to get Sharpe's daughter to "tone down the political rhetoric," but the daughter declined. She was prepared to take out a half-page display ad (which apparently would not have gone through such scrutiny) with a $7,100 pricetag, in order to publish her mom's own words.

According to Grondahl's article, the daughter said: "It's not about the money. It's about the principle."

In the end, it was amended to say that Sharpe hoped that people who wish to remember her continue to support the Kyoto Protocol and oppose the Bush Administration.

Grondahl added some nice touches to his story. He pointed out that Sharpe, a self-described born-again atheist, frequently wrote letters to the editor advocating euthanasia for humans, as well as respect for atheists and agnostics. She decided she was ready to die and took prearranged steps to end her life on Monday.

It was unclear what prearranged steps Sharpe took.

Grondahl wrote: In her final hours, Helen Sharpe struggled to rise from her sickbed to make her daughter jelly tarts, "So you'll have sweetness in your mouth, instead of bitterness."

He described a planned celebration of her life and ended his piece with her last words:

She left instructions for that event, as well: a case of good wine and a selection of gourmet cheeses. A pianist will play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Helen Sharpe's final words to her daughter were these: "We're so lucky, aren't we?"

Well done, Paul Grondahl!

I have to give credit to Pam Vetter for forwarding this story that's been circulating among funeral celebrants.

And I must confess that I too engaged in a form of censorship regarding this. I waited to post this item until after the Nov. 7 elections were over. I know, I know. Shame on me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Censors for on-line obituary guest books

If you haven't read it -- fascinating New York Times story about people who vet the online obituary guest book before the posts are made public.