My grandma's obit

It's never the big things in journalism.For all the media critiques in these and other parts around the blogosphere, the truth is that the really gigantic troubles for your everyday working journalists don't usually involve questions of pack journalism, bias or any other hot-button issue.More often, the problems involve obituaries.I have had a judge call me into his chambers to scream and complain about my coverage of him. I've had disgruntled readers try to get me fired. I've been threatened with an ass-kicking.None of that compares, however, with taking a phone call from the wife, daughter, son or parent of somebody in that day's obituary section - when the obituary was screwed up.These are the most anguishing calls to take. Because the bereaved family member is still very much bereaved. Because the paper's error compounded the distress. And because there's no amount of apologizing you can do, really.Once, last year, a woman I know pulled out of traffic to confront me, shaking with anger, because of an error in her mother's obituary that morning. I'd never seen her like that before, and it scared me a little bit. And I didn't even write that obit.So I find myself alternately amused and irritated to look at the Newton Kansan's Web site today in search of my [grandma's obituary][1], only to find the following."Emma Jean Mathis, 78, died Tuesday (April 10, 2007) at Newton Medical Center in Newton."She was born on Feb. 11, 1929, in rural Parsons to Clyde C. and Waunetta May (Pyatt) Mathis. On Oct. 20, 1951 she married Marvin Mathis in Dennis. He survive at home." (Emphasis added.)Ahem. For the record, my grandmother was the daughter of Clyde and Waunetta Likins. And my grandfather: He survives.(They did use the word "survives" later in the obituary - when referring to the "survivors.")Also - though I suspect the Kansan couldn't have known this - my grandmother preferred to be called "Jean." I didn't even know about the "Emma" part until a couple of years ago.Final tally: One factual error, two grammatical errors.My grandmother lived in Newton for more than 20 years, subscribing to the Newton Kansan, as far as I know, the entire time. And for those years of loyal subscribership, she is sent from this world with a poorly edited obituary.I do not know how my grandmother would have felt about this; she never talked much about her reading habits in my presence, nor did I ever hear her express any strong opinions about the use of the English language. Or factual accuracy. (Though she made it clear that she was no fan of my shaved head.)I have a couple of opinions, however. And while I pity the poor obituary writer, who has the least room for error of any journalist, I pity my family a little bit more.Rest in peace, grandma. [1]:


Aileen Dingus 15 years, 11 months ago

I'm sorry for your loss Joel, and I'm sorry it wasn't handled with more grace.

Want me to call 'em up and give 'em what for?

lazz 15 years, 11 months ago

Condolences for your loss, Joel.

And a reminder about what's important in every form of journalism: Obits gotta be perfect, TV listings better be right, don't forget the softball standings ...

Joel 15 years, 11 months ago

Don't forget the crosswords, lazz.

And thanks to you both for the kind words. I had a brief and polite discussion with the obits editor of the Kansan this morning; they'll be re-running the obits, with corrections this time.

thetomdotdot 15 years, 11 months ago

Sorry about your grandma, Joel. My best to your family.

CafeSiren 15 years, 11 months ago

Sorry for your loss, Joel. Glad you were able to be civil, and get things rectified.

You should send the obit editor a link to this blog entry: it says what you mean, but with empathy.

And even "He survives at home" is nonsensical, IMO.

Laura Watkins 15 years, 11 months ago

very, very sorry for your loss. my great uncle died last weekend and the birmingham news spelled his middle name and the name of one of his sons wrong. an obituary may not seem that important but it really can be. mistakes like that just makes stuff crappier...

cutny 15 years, 11 months ago

Hmmm...Maybe people should be allowed to submit their own obits, as they do when they pre-plan a funeral. That way, any fault found is on somebody that likely won't be around to care.

emawkc 15 years, 11 months ago

All condolences Joel and no disrespect, but...

I agree with CS. I'm not sure who is in charge of the National Obituary Formula, but saying that a person "survives" (or even "survive") has always seemed really wierd to me.

I mean, was my grandfather lucky enough not to be voted off the island or what? Why does every obit have to follow the same template? It's not the box scores forcryinoutloud.

I guess it makes it easier on the "journalist" if they don't have to put any thought into what they're writing.

Joel 15 years, 11 months ago

Emaw: Obits tend to be formulaic, to be sure -- and "survives," I'm guessing, is archaic language that for some reason has never been left behind.

No disrespect taken.

Kookamooka 15 years, 11 months ago

On another note, I do a lot of family history research and one of our relatives was completely omitted from his father's obituary. He actually died before his father so he couldn't be a "survivor" but should the obit writer have mentioned him as a former member of the man's family? He was the deceased son. A whole branch of the family tree was cut off.

CafeSiren 15 years, 11 months ago

I've seen " survived by...", but the language makes it seem like there was some sort of explosion, and your grandfather survived it, but that survival is contingent upon him remaining at home.

Sorry about the pedantry, but that's what I'm paid to do. Maybe I should have been an editor.

Speaking of which: did I tell you my friend the "editer" has given up the biz?

Mike Blur 15 years, 11 months ago

Does the J-W actually write obituaries from scratch?

My family resides north of Topeka. I've participated in family meetings --organized shortly after the death of a family member--where we collaborate in writing the obituary, send it to the funeral home, and the funeral home disseminates the obituary to interested media outlets.

My primary, self-appointed duty at these meetings is to strike the use of passive voice and help clean up punctuation and usage. Great care is taken by all of us--usually 10-15 adults, over the age of 40--and the obituary appears the way we want it to appear in the local papers.

The Topeka Capital-Journal charges $3.70 a line. The funeral home includes that cost as part of the total package--and as long as we pay the tab and provide the copy, the C-J prints the obit "as-is."

Paul Decelles 15 years, 11 months ago

Joel, sorry about your Grandmother. When my wife's father died and the arrangements being made, I received a call from the funeral home apologising because the Topeka paper refused to print the last statement my wife had written in his obit. It said he died from cod liver oil poisoning. This was an inside joke to the his family since he was took cod liver oil every day as a tonic. However the Topeka obit editor was a bit slow on the uptake because the online version of the obit still had the sentence.

Joel 15 years, 11 months ago

Different newspapers do it differently, Mike.

At J-W, we offer obits for free - but they have to conform to our news style, which admittedly is "just the facts, ma'am," and fairly narrowly tailored. If you want the obit to be exactly how you want it, then you can go to our advertising department and pay them to display it to your satisfaction. I have no idea what the rates are.

And typically, the funeral homes send us a fact sheet with all (or most) of the relevant info, which we use to plug into our obit model.

CafeSiren: I agree; the language is archaic to the point of offputting, but I'm also not sure how to replace it. Any ideas?

LawSW 15 years, 11 months ago

Sorry Joel about the loss of your grandmother. If they screw up the obit again, I say we all band together and take a bus road trip and open up a can of obit wup-*ss on 'em--just kidding. Sometimes a little laughter helps us heal--and time, and good memories. God bless...

tot 15 years, 11 months ago

An older woman at my office recently shared an article with us from her AARP newsletter. It was a guideline to obituary submissions. Apparently, and this is beyond sleazy, people are gleening information from obituaries to steal identities. The AARP is suggesting that all personal information (full name, birthdate, place of residence, etc.) be left out. What does that leave?

Spyder 15 years, 11 months ago

My sympathies on your loss.

Part of my job is looking at obits so that I can mark people deceased in our database. One of the best ones must have been written by the person herself. It had her name and "I'm dead" and the date.

Spyder 15 years, 11 months ago

My sympathies on your loss.

Part of my job is looking at obits so that I can mark people deceased in our database. One of the best ones must have been written by the person herself. It had her name and "I'm dead" and the date.

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