The wishes of the grieving
Every now and then I get an email asking, “Don’t you people edit the obituaries?”
The answer is yes, we do. And no, we don’t.
If you read a bylined obituary in The Free Lance-Star, it is a news article prepared by a staff member. The family doesn’t pay for it but also doesn’t govern its content.
News obituaries are rare, assigned only after careful consideration by the editors. We edit them as we would any other staff-written article on our pages.
The obituaries that appear daily in our Region section are generally not bylined, though they are prepared in-house by our top-notch obituary clerks, based on information from a family member or funeral home. These are paid advertisements.
While we do edit paid obituaries to conform with basic newspaper style, families can say pretty much what they want. That’s why you’ll frequently read the names not just of human survivors but of beloved pets.
If a family member prefers to avoid saying “died” or “passed away” but instead writes “left the confines of this Earth to dance in heaven with the Lord,” that’s fine.
Or if, as sometimes happens, a family wants the world to know that the obituary subject loved to eat chocolate or drink whiskey, we’ll run that too. Families see paid obituaries as a chance to express their loved ones’ personalities, beliefs and lovable foibles.
But sometimes a family member’s preferred wording doesn’t appear in the paper exactly as submitted.
Our obituary clerks and copy editors do edit for accuracy, checking spellings of proper nouns, for example. We have guidelines for where commas and semicolons go in lists of survivors. We fix obvious errors in spelling and grammar.
Some mistakes tend to crop up more from out-of-town funeral homes than local ones. The word “formerly” may come in as “formally”—as in the phrase “formally of Stafford County”—and we’ll change that. Or the word “interment,” meaning burial, may be mistyped as “internment,” which is the confinement of a prisoner for political or military reasons. We’ll change that, too.
Because every line of an obituary adds to its cost, we try to keep brevity in mind as long as we’re following our standard style guidelines. Where we can shorten a phrase, we do.
But that can backfire, as happened one recent night when I was copy editing. The family member who submitted an obituary made it clear to that day’s obituary clerk that she preferred the phrase “was graduated from” to “graduated from.”
I didn’t get the message. I saw the phrase “was graduated from” on the page proof and changed it according to Associated Press style, which says:
“Graduate is correctly used in the active voice: She graduated from the university. It is correct, but unnecessary, to use the passive voice: He was graduated from the university.”
Well, it may be unnecessary to the editors of the AP stylebook, but it was necessary to this family member. I learned later that she was disappointed her wishes hadn’t been followed.
Sometimes our flexibility in editing obituaries comes across as inconsistency, and that, I suspect, is what prompts the occasional complaint.
Just know that we do edit the obituaries—while keeping in mind the wishes of the grieving.