Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Read All About It

A friend called me the other evening to talk about the obituary of a mutual friend that was recently published in a national newspaper.  He said he and others were beside themselves because the obituary didn't capture what the guy was really about.  To him, it seemed rather flat and cold and the very thought of it made him do a slow burn.

I've been there and I know what he is talking about because I have had my own issues with the obituaries in this newspaper.  Maybe this annoyance at the lack of important details in obituaries is another example of the internet's effect on newspapers or maybe it's a generational difference.  I'm not sure; maybe it's a little of both.  Or maybe it's just a matter of expecting too much.  It reminded me of what Irish author Brendan Behan once said: there is no such thing as bad publicity except for your own obituary.

I do know there was a time when newspapers took a lot of pride in the way their obituaries were written and presented and lots of newspapers recognized that circulation could be affected by how that section of the paper was handled.  But newspapers are now struggling to survive and even the word circulation seems old-fashioned.  I know it's called progress but I still like to have a newspaper delivered to my house and even though I watch the morning and nightly news on television, I always read at least one newspaper every day.

Today it's all about how many hits you get, or how many impressions you get or how many followers you have on Twitter or Facebook.  The obituaries, or the Irish sports page as some joke, were once considered the meat and potatoes of newspaper coverage.  It was a paper's unspoken connection to the community it covered. 

My friend and I discussed how decades ago, The Boston Globe used to actually print anybody's obituary on the front page.  That's what helped the Globe gain readers and become popular.  But that was then.  I know it's hard to imagine that happening today because only celebrities, Presidents, world leaders or someone despised by the masses would rate an obituary on the front page of any newspaper.

A good obituary is similiar to a good speech:  it's not too long, it informs, it explains and sometimes it makes you smile.  It tells you how old this person was when they died, the causes of their death and how their life influenced their community or the world at large.  It more than a resume; it's supposed to tell you what this person did with their life, good or bad.  I don't read the obituaries every day although I know lots of people who do.

I have been known to read the obituary of someone I don't know at all because of something in the headline that drew my interest.  When that happens, I always come away with a feeling of  "Wow! What an interesting person and look at the twists and turns of their life."

These days, I'm not sure how many people even read a newspaper.  Lots of people depend on Yahoo! or other online news services to find out what's happening in the world.  I told my friend that since he and others are dissatisfied about the state of this person's official obituary then they should write their own obituary, and with the family's permission, pass it out at the memorial service that his wife is going to have a few months from now.  This is their opportunity to really go on and on about the guy and let people know what the newspaper didn't include.

After all, that's what friends are for...right? 

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