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January 22, 2013

Like newspapers, obituaries have evolved

The Daily Star

---- — When I left The Daily Star a few years ago, I promised our news clerk that I would be sending along my obituary so she could keep it on file. That way, when the time came, all she would have to do is plug in the date.

Guess what? I haven’t followed through, though I have not avoided the subject. Obituaries have changed so much over the last quarter century; I simply have not been able to decide how to write it.

I know this may seem like a grim subject, and it can be, I guess, but it is something we all have to deal with at some point. You know, there are birth notices, graduations, weddings, career accolades and, eventually, obituaries. They are part of our lives.

It is no coincidence that obituaries are the most-read section of most newspapers.

Until about 1990, newspapers treated obituaries as news; they were published free of charge and followed a strict style that required factual statements. After the mini-recession in the late 1980s, most newspapers started charging a fee for obits. That led to a loosening of the news style. Families were permitted to say just about anything they wanted, since obits had to be treated more like paid ads.

That’s why today you often see much more than the traditional “who, what, why, where and when’’ in the first paragraphs of obituaries. It is not uncommon to read that so-and-so died and went home to join ancestors with the lord in Heaven. Years ago, you couldn’t say that.

Also forbidden by traditional style were adjectives describing how accomplished or great people were. Today, you could read that someone was the nicest guy in town and spent his life helping others. That may or may not be true, so in the old days you couldn’t say it in an obit.

So, today, the choices are endless for what you might want to say in your own obituary or that of a family member, which can make it all the more challenging to proceed.

There was a time when I thought people should start writing their autobiographies at about age 30, with the idea that they would be just about ready to wrap it up when the time came to do so. Then, an obituary would be more like a “CliffsNotes’’ version of your life story.

However, how do you know someone is telling the truth in an autobiography? What if liberties are taken, and positive situations are enhanced and negative ones are played down or omitted altogether?

It may not matter. I believe it was Albert Camus who wrote that the lies one tells about oneself show us as much about that person as the truths. Or, to quote him, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’’

In that case, our autobiographies become more like memoirs in which you are permitted to embellish your life experiences, using fiction to tell the truth.

So where does that leave us when it is time to write our obituaries, when you are permitted to state the unverifiable as if it were fact, and describe an exemplary life even if it were not?

Whether you’ve been working on an autobiography or not, it is never too early to plan your obituary. If you are still young, it can be a good exercise in deciding what you would like your obituary to say decades from now, sort of like setting goals and pursuing them.

Naturally, to state that you died, nothing happened, and went nowhere but into nothingness is really no more factual than saying you gloriously entered some majestic kingdom of the afterlife. I have yet to see an obituary that stated the deceased immediately descended into hell. Just in case, I guess no one wants to say that.

For myself, I could go beyond the facts of my existence as a journalist, editor and writer, husband and father, reader and golfer, by making each of those aspects of life into varieties of human greatness. Or, I could stick to the facts.

Anyway, now you might see the quandary of proceeding with my obituary. Being able to write anything you want, fact or fiction, provides a lot of freedom and turns the project into a difficult undertaking.

And every time I see our news clerk around town, I have to explain that I’m still working on it, and vow that I definitely will get it to her before it’s too late.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.