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.

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