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Columns

September 27, 2007

Paid obits’ best feature is comfort

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

- Mark Twain, upon learning that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal.



Obituaries have long been a staple of American newspapers, even being the only items some people read each day.



As someone who writes a column, that’s a practice I would heartily discourage.



Still, I can understand those who say they look at the obituaries first thing in the morning, and if their name isn’t there, they get up and have breakfast.



I’ve also come to understand family members who include unusual entries in the summations of their loved ones’ lives.



How many times have you seen something like this?



"Among the survivors are her Aunt Helen, Uncle Jake and her beloved cat, Fluffy."



For many years, newspapers have grappled with the concept of paid obituaries, that is, allowing folks to write virtually anything they want about the deceased as long as they are willing to pay for however many words they use.



Traditionally, obituaries have been free, written by a reporter or copy editor and edited just like any other newsworthy event.



Mentioning Fluffy _ or, for that matter, any other pet _ would not be allowed. A lot of papers also won’t include cousins, grandchildren and other relatively distant relatives.



On some of the nation’s larger newspapers, the obituary beat is much-prized because it gives a writer the opportunity to explore the lives of interesting people and to chronicle history.



But often, doing obituaries is the first thing a rookie reporter is assigned to do.



Most of those "obits" are heavily dependent upon information provided by the family or funeral homes and are done in a formulaic fashion to conform with the newspaper’s writing style.



The trend toward paid obituaries has been fueled by people’s desires to write what they want without the filter of a reporter or copy editor doing more than cleaning up grammar and punctuation mistakes.

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