May 1, 2005
I’ll start the month with a rant. The title of this piece is “Obituary Tropes.” A trope is a word or an expression used in a figurative sense, or a common or overused theme or device. Back in December I wrote about “epistolary tropes” in poking fun at the beloved genre of the annual holiday letter. Today I’m going to go on about what I see as a disturbing trend in the modern obituary, at least as it is reflected in The Patriot-News, the newspaper of record of the capital city of Pennsylvania.
The Patriot always ran obituaries free of charge. From experience handling my parents’ deaths, I recall that the funeral director took the information and transmitted it to the newspaper. The notices ran on the second (and sometimes the third) page of the second (local) section, each a column wide and in the same font and size as all the other news articles. They followed a pattern: So-and-so, age, of [Someplace], died on [Date]. He was [a graduate of, an employee of, a member of] [whatever]. He was the spouse (or the widow) of (person he married). He is survived by (children, oldest listed first), grandchildren (number of them, no names unless they were the one with whom the deceased lived) further generations (again, numbers only). Services will be held on [the date set]. Contributions can be made to [some suitable fund].
About two years ago the newspaper announced that henceforth only fifteen lines of an obituary would be printed without fee. If a longer notice was desired, the family or the estate would have to pay. My pastor, who researched this for a sermon, learned that the average obituary was costing about $100-$150. Photographs could be included for an additional charge.
At first, the notices seemed not much different from the ones that had been placed before. After a while, though, it became apparent that the obituaries were being printed unedited, just as they came from the well-meaning family member assigned the task. They took on a certain, well, tone. No longer just a listing of dates, associations, survivors, and arrangements, they became tributes. Those being memorialized were going to be sorely or dearly or sadly missed by everyone who knew them. People were survived not only by their children and grandchildren, but by their dogs or cats or, in one recent case, six named horses.
And in trying to honor the late loved one, family members began reaching for elevated language. It seems it was no longer sufficient just to say the person had died.
The Patriot-News published 133 obituaries last week. Of those 133 souls, only 86 “died,” while 34 “passed away.” Some of those didn’t merely pass away, however. They passed away unexpectedly, peacefully, suddenly, of natural causes, with their family present, or after losing a battle (or, in a few cases, a brave battle) with some dreaded disease. One person passed from this life to be with God, two went to be with the Lord in two separate locations, several were called or taken or otherwise left this life to be with the Lord, one was called home for this purpose, and three merely departed this life with no destination specified.
One person, however, was said to have “ascended into heaven on the 28th day of the month of April in the year of Our Lord 2005.”
That’s well over the top. Somebody at the newspaper needs to take control.