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Do not go gently, but please do be brief.
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Published Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 8:07 AM EDT
May 21 2018

One of the first- and surprisingly most important- skills I had to learn 47 years ago as a 17 year old cub reporter at a small daily newspaper was to transcribe obits.

Obituaries, that is. Paid death notices, called in by local funeral directors, often just a few minutes before the deadline for the day's edition.

Very, very few local people ranked a news obit at our paper. You had to be special- an elected official, a former athlete, a beloved numbers writer- to warrant editorial recognition of your passing. Even then, there'd usually just be a brief headline, a picture pulled from the files, and something along the lines of "The community is mourning the passing yesterday of so and so, a respected teacher and coach... See the obituary listings on page six."

Obits were- and remain- an essential, indispensable source of revenue for newspapers. Along with legal notices and the ever-shrinking classified ad pages, paid death notices generate much more money per inch than display advertising. And depending upon the average age of a publication's subscribers, the obits could also have more readers than the other, "real news" sections of the paper, possibly excepting the comics page. I recall that on days with no deaths and no published obits, word got around the community quickly and our newsstand sales for the day would actually decline.

My first day as a reporter at the "rim" of the city desk- a big, semicircular hunk of metal and vinyl furniture, with the editor esconced in the center (the "slot") and reporters seated around the outside- did not begin as I had expected. There was no lecture on ethics, the handling of sources, a review of the AP Style Book, or other journalistic exercises. The very first thing the city editor impressed upon me was the vital importance of taking obits over the phone.

Why make reporters take the obits, and not the classified department? In the unlikely event the deceased was someone of import, we'd know about it first. But mainly, management asserted those of us in editorial were the fastest, most accurate typists, would make the least mistakes, and would be more likely to hustle an obit down to graphics in time to meet deadline and generate billing for that day. Money was an important consideration. As my city editor made quite clear to me, the one-day publication of the death notice of an individual with lots of kids and grandkids- requiring the purchase of several column inches of space- would pay my salary and mileage expenses for an entire week. A newspaper is a business, after all.

When the phone rang in editorial and it was a local funeral director on the line, you put the police chief or mayor or your mother on hold immediately, stuffed a new sheet of paper in your manual Royal, and typed like mad.

My first day I think I did three obits, thereby justifying my existence and engendering a feeling of self-achievement. That lasted until about 2 p.m., when the paper hit the streets and I got the call from a furious funeral director.

"Look at that obit," he fumed. I shuffled to the page and found the listing. "Read it," he demanded.

"John Doe, 75, of Homestead, died Novem-"

"Stop!" he yelled. "What's that word in there after Homestead?"

"Died," I replied.

"Died," he repeated, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "It's the effing obituary column, you idiot. What the hell else would he be doing? Shooting hoops? Let me talk to your boss. Now."

I forwarded him on and sat there, genuinely puzzled at the outburst. A few minutes later, the city editor called me into a bare, vacant office adjacent to the newsroom.

"Bet you're wondering what the big deal is with that obit, huh?" he asked, not unkindly. I sat there in silence and nodded in bewildered agreement.

"Okay, it's like this. The funeral home business around here is pretty cut-throat, what with all the old people and competing parlors. Some offer special package deals- coffin, embalming, viewing, publishing the obit, hearse rental, everything- for a fixed price. By adding the word 'died', which he swears he didn't say to you, the obit ran one line deeper, which cost him like another ten bucks or so which, he emphasized, came straight off his bottom line. I told him we wouldn't charge him for the extra line, and that while I wouldn't fire you since you're new, I'd be sure to put the fear of God in you, which I assume I've done."

I shook my head again. He smiled and chuckled. "Don't sweat it, kid. You did okay for your first day. But from now on, you read the copy back to him and get him to approve it before you send it downstairs. Keep it as short as possible, and go easy on the punctuation marks, too. He complained about too many commas in his listings last week."

On the few occasions since my newspaper days that I've had the sad and unfortunate responsibility to write an obituary, I recall that first day on the job and the lessons learned. True, I've loosened up a bit. For the sake of readability, I don't skip on modifiers and articles, and I use complete sentences. Frugality does not trump coherency, and what's another 20 bucks or so? You only die once, may as well splurge a bit.

Due to my recent experience, for the past several weeks I've been reading through the paid death notices in the local papers, fascinated by their evolution since my professional involvement four decades ago. The new euphemisms, phrasings, magniloquence, and verbosity of modern obituaries are impressive.

It is interesting to note the term "obituary" is itself a tortured euphemism of sorts. One of the interpretations of its Latin root word "obit" is, indeed, death. But its first meaning is the act of going toward something, to approach, encounter, or visit. Its second is the process of descending, setting, or sunset. Death ranks a lowly third. This form of linguistic contortionism is still common today. Consider pass, expire, terminate, depart, move on, croak, etc. All of these words can describe death or dying, but it's not the primary definition of any of them.

My favorite circumlocution on the subject, which one could describe as almost poetic (if not for its source) comes from the famous Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch: "...he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible." It also contains the assertion that the bird in question, "a Norwegian Blue", had not expired, but was rather "pining for the fjords," a phrase ingrained deeply enough within our zeitgeist that it's the title of a scholarly paper bemoaning the use of indirect terms referencing death.

But I digress.

In addition to the "departure verb" or description, the modern obit often features a mind-numbing litany of the individual's life. Some of these descriptions can be considered perhaps too brief, but most offend wildly in the other direction.

I suspect family members and survivors who ramble on in their social media posts are stunned when they receive a due on receipt, four-figure invoice from the funeral director or newspaper. What else could be expected from breathlessly recounting, in excruciating detail, the last ten years of dearly departed Nana's social and recreational activities at the assisted living facility, as well as listing the names of every miniature poodle she'd ever owned? And what was the reason for mentioning her recent in-hospital treatment for chlamydia? We all know there are no koalas in Turtle Creek. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, eh? (Another Python reference).

In any event, here are some memorable phrases I've transcribed from paid death notices recently. No offense intended. I'm certain they were sincere in context.

...accidentally, while having the time of his life. (What was it that he was doing? It sounds as if it was something that should be avoided.)

...after a long, grueling battle with alcoholism. (Whose alcoholism? Whose batttle? Who found it grueling? Was this really necessary, or one last passive-agressive outburst?)

...after an extended illness, surrounded by his family, left home with the angels. (One assumes the angels dropped the family off somewhere en route.)

...shortly after the celebration of her 100th birthday ("You do not need to take a shot for each year, Grandma.")

...after long illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and frontal temporal lobe dementia (When I read ones like this, I don't know if the family is expressing sympathy for the departed or relief for themselves.)

...after saying, 'Take me home, Jesus.' (Unfortunately, the Jesus in question was his Uber driver.)

...at age 95 (looks good for her age) (Well, not any more.)

...ascended to heaven, breathed her last breath and went peacefully to God's eternal home and into the arms of her husband, daughter, and son. (These always strike me as presumptuous, for some reason. And I think they got the sequence wrong.)

...born on the Feast of the Guardian Angels and was taken home on their wings. (Feast... wings... eww...)

...bravely faced death in the arms of his devoted wife. (Let's hope she didn't have him in a chickenwing over-the-shoulder crossface hold.)

...died peacefully beside his one and only true and forever love, his wife. (Please tell us they were home in bed.)

...died peacefully in his favorite chair. (I wouldn't mind going that way.)

...donned his wings. (This makes me think of Michael Keaton in "Birdman.")

...escaped this mortal realm. (Sounds like a Bifrost-related subplot from a Marvel "Thor" movie.)

...finally, after succumbing to illness. ("Finally"? Man, that's harsh.)

...found peace and rest after 36 years of a courageous and uncomplaining battle with a cerebral venous malformation. (If he didn't complain, why bring it up now?)

...has gone home. (This euphemism has always bothered me as well. Home is where the good wi-fi and dogs are. Period.)

He had just finished serving his mom and aunt breakfast in bed and said he was going back to bed to sleep in a bit longer. He died in his sleep. (Thereby giving his mom and aunt a sense of guilt that will haunt them the rest of their days. Thanks for reminding them.)

Her loving family sent her home to be with her mother, father, brothers, and sister. (Did she die, or did you just kick her out of the apartment above the garage?)

...joined his friends for their eternal golf matches. (According to those who played behind them, their matches down here seemed eternal as well.)

...made her transition at her residence. ("made her transition at her residence" vs. "died at home"? Someone's getting a kickback from the newspaper.)

...passed away and joined her late ex-husband. (Are we talking about heaven here? From whose perspective?)

...passed away on Christmas night, following a seven year battle with frontotemporal dementia. (The "Touched By An Angel" school of obit writing.)

...passed from this earth to a more beautiful and peaceful place. Leaving far too soon, his life cut way too short, he touched many lives and left the world and us better for his having been here. (You know, we remember "The Big Chill" too.)

...peacefully, after a long descent. (Descent? Hot air balloon? Airbus 380? Everest?)

...peacefully moved on to his next adventure. (Let's hope the next one ends better.)

...received a command from her Lord. She now resides in heaven and has been chosen to sing in God the Father's choir (Thanks for voting in "Heaven's Got Talent"!)

The Universe has shifted. (I'd like to see the math on that, please.)

...unexpectedly, doing what she loved at camp. (Please, for the love of God, say no more...)

...was called (adverb) by (some supernatural entity) to (engage in some empyrean activity). (Some funeral directors apparently use Mad Libs.)

Full disclosure: The author maintains his own obituary, which now stands at 738 words. Hey, I'm getting up there, and I've owned a lot of dogs.


Categories: Death, Newspapers, Obituaries, Passages, The Daily KGB Report


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Newspapers
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Published Saturday, June 11, 2016 @ 6:13 AM EDT
Jun 11 2016

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.
-Arthur Miller

A magazine or a newspaper is a shop. Each is an experiment and represents a new focus, a new ratio between commerce and intellect.
-John Jay Chapman

A newspaper consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not.
-Henry Fielding

Accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a lady, except that a newspaper can always print a retraction.
-Adlai E. Stevenson II

All newspaper and journalistic activity is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat.
-Leo Tolstoy

An honest newspaper publishes corrections on the front page. There are no honest newspapers.
-Ray Newton

Dad, as a good American, believed his newspapers.
-Upton Sinclair

Editor: a person employed on a newspaper whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.
-Elbert Hubbard

Everybody who talks to a newspaper has a motive. That's just a given. And good reporters always, repeat always, probe to find out what that motive is.
-Ben Bradlee

Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.
-Erwin Knoll

Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President- the same half?
-Gore Vidal

Have a good time. The newspaper will be great if you're having a good time.
-Ben Bradlee

Have you noticed that life, with murders and catastrophes and fabulous inheritances, happens almost exclusively in newspapers?
-Jean Anouilh

I am unable to understand how a man of honor can take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust.
-Charles Baudelaire

I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.
-Christopher Hitchens

I do worry about how newspapers respond to falling circulation figures. I'm not sure that the answer is for newspapers to try to cater to whatever seems to be the fad of the day.
-Ben Bradlee

I shall never tolerate the newspapers to say or do anything against my interests; they may publish a few little articles with just a little poison in them, but one fine morning somebody will shut their mouths.
-Napoleon Bonaparte

I used to love the newspaper business because if you had an idea, you could get it into the paper immediately, in a matter of hours. Now you have to watch out and worry about who you are offending and blah blah blah. So it's changed.
-Ben Bradlee

If Moses had been paid newspaper rates for the Ten Commandments, he might have written the Two Thousand Commandments.
-Isaac Bashevis Singer

If the newspapers of a country are filled with good news, the jails of that country will be filled with good people.
-Daniel Patrick Moynihan

If you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he'll get rich or famous or both.
-James C. Hagerty

It is a newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell.
-William Storey

Large newspapers are routinely censored by legal costs. It is time this stopped. It is time a country said, enough is enough, justice must be seen, history must be preserved, and we will give shelter from the storm.
-Julian Assange

Never believe in mirrors or newspapers.
-Tom Stoppard

Newspaper strikes are a relief.
-Princess Anne

Newspapermen meet many interesting people, most of them other newspapermen.
-Frederick C. Klein

Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one down without a feeling of disappointment.
-Charles Lamb

Newspapers are the second hand of history. This hand, however, is usually not only of inferior metal to the other hands, it also seldom works properly.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

Newspapers are unable, seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.
-George Bernard Shaw

Newspapers will run a headline: 'Shark kills human.' You never see a headline from the other perspective: 'Man swims in shark-infested water, forgets he's shark food.'
-Gary Larson

Nothing could be older than the daily news, nothing deader than yesterday's newspaper.
-Edward Abbey

Nowadays I'm not even sure if newspapers take into account whether a person is a good writer.
-Bob Schieffer

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.
-Norman Mailer

One newspaper a day ought to be enough for anyone who still prefers to retain a little mental balance.
-Clifton Fadiman

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.
-A.J. Liebling

Reading the morning newspaper is the realist's morning prayer.
-Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.
-H.L. Mencken

The business of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
-Finley Peter Dunne

The editor of a newspaper is like the ringmaster of a circus. He can book the acts, but he can't tell the acrobats which way to jump.
-Sir Humphrey Appleby

The evil that men do lives on the front pages of greedy newspapers, but the good is oft interred apathetically inside.
-Brooks Atkinson

The hell with the newspapers. Nobody reads the letters to the editor column except the nuts. It's enough to get you down.
-Philip K. Dick

The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors.
-Thomas Jefferson

The newspaper is in all its literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct.
-Walter Lippmann

The newspapers still talk about glory but the average man, thank God, has got rid of that illusion.
-E.M. Forster

The nicest thing is to open the newspapers and not to find yourself in them.
-George Harrison

The relationship between truth and a newspaper is like the relationship between the color green and the number seven. Occasionally you will see the number seven written in green, but you learn not to expect this.
-Garrison Keillor

There is but one way for a newspaperman to look at a politician and that is down.
-Frank H. Simonds

Things that appear on the front page of the newspaper as 'fact' are far more dangerous than the games played by a novelist, and can lead to wars.
-E.L. Doctorow

Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's St Matthew Passion on a ukulele: The instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience and for the performer.
-Ben Bagdikian

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand on a clock.
-Ben Hecht

Vanity in a newspaper man is like perfume on a whore; they use it to fend off a dark whiff of themselves.
-Julian Assange

We live under a government of men and morning newspapers.
-Wendell Phillips

We should bear in mind that, in general, it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation- to make a point- than to further the cause of truth.
-Edgar Allan Poe

Well, sure, the government lies, and the newspapers lie. But in a democracy, they aren't the same lies.
-Alexis A. Gilliland

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-Thomas Jefferson

You should always believe all you read in newspapers, as this makes them more interesting.
-Rose Macaulay


Categories: Newspapers, Quotes of the day, Quotes on a topic


The web edition of KGB Report is published Monday-Thursday, except on holidays. Follow KGB Report and my personal account on Facebook for frequent daily updates.


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