The new obit: How your life will be remembered

Varick Chittenden

“He loved golf, spearmint-leaf candy, jazz, blues, laughter, the company of good friends, a good story and a well-mixed stinger. He was a kind, patient, loving man who dedicated his life to his family and helping others.” — Michael, 69, Sackets Harbor.

These days, I often find myself picking up the local morning newspapers, skimming the headlines, and then going directly to the obituary pages. I like to think my habit comes from living in one place for so long and knowing—or knowing of—lots of people. I don’t like to think that it’s because of my age! An old axiom among journalists is that the obit page is among the most read in the entire newspaper, before sports, stock market news, comic strips and advice columns.

In recent years, however, I’ve been noticing some interesting changes in the content of local obituaries. Unlike the New York Times and other major city newspapers that have published only the obituaries of people whose lives and accomplishments the editors deemed newsworthy, our small-town papers have long included the passing of everyone in their coverage area. The standard format included the deceased’s birthplace and parents’ names, education, marriage, work experience and employers, survivors and funeral and burial arrangements.

John B. Johnson Jr., third-generation publisher and editor of the family-owned Watertown Daily Times, said that for a long time, their paper adhered to “strict professional standards” for obituaries, because they believe they are creating a historical record. That sometimes meant also including facts that families didn’t want, like divorces, criminal records, or suicides. But with severe belt-tightening during the recent economic downturn, the paper started to charge by the inch for obituaries, a practice common at most other papers for some time.

According to Mr. Johnson, that now means that the deceased’s survivors can include (almost) anything they want in the text. The notices are now usually written by a family member or someone from the funeral home. The effect has been noticeable.

Putting aside my twitching blue pencil left over from more than 30 of teaching writing, the part that interests me most is the frequent inclusion of “special interests” or “favorite things to do.” For months now, I’ve collected examples of “the new obituary” from several local sources.

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Living in print or subscribe.]

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. A version of this column previously appeared in Voices: A Journal of New York Folklore. Reprinted with permission of the New York Folklore Society.