The truly written obituary has all but bought the farm.
When I started reporting here in the early 1990s, the obits went through two or three edits for word choice — the kinds of things that go unnoticed when something reads easy — and for accuracy and spelling.
The obits then, sometimes upward of 50 a day, were for the most part just-the-facts offerings, the particulars for which were often faxed or phoned in from Middle Georgia mortuaries.
We left the flowery language to funeral officiants.
We aimed to give everyone a clearly-worded sendoff.
Not that mistakes didn’t slip through.
There is newsroom legend of the time we erred, and off to press, at the top of a page no less, went the unfortunate misspelling of one Mrs. Pitts. (Use your imagination.)
Now as newspapers shrink, our lack of live bodies in the office to do the copy-smoothing and correcting — and, when needed, rewriting — means less-than-journalistic language makes its way into the obits. Someone in our business office now compiles the death notices. Editing standards have slipped.
One long-held tenet of newspapering is — or was — that we avoid writing that people who die “expire” or “breathe their last” or “meet their maker” or “left this life” or that they were “called home.”
Death is tough enough. Euphemisms, try as they might, do not soften the blow.
Glorious as it may sound, saying someone “earned her angel wings,” does not exactly fly off the page literarily.
Besides, sugarcoatings can be confusing — or worse, superficial.
There is nothing wrong with: John Smith died Monday. He was 87.
There is dignity in simplicity.
But anymore in print the dearly departed, on an almost daily basis, “pass away.”
Sometimes they “drift off” in far more flamboyant fashion, as these recent obits from an Oklahoma funeral parlor attest (and, yes, they are real):
Closed his eyes on earth but woke up in paradise on Saturday …
Crossed the bridge to an eternal life on Tuesday …
Boarded Heaven’s Airways on Saturday …
In 2005, the first line of a Savannah woman’s obituary declared that she “shed her Earthsuit on Sunday … to dance in Heaven with the angels for Eternity.”
There is no way in heaven that Telegraph editors of old would have let that phrasing reach readers’ eyes. (Not to mention the unnecessary capitalizations of Earthsuit, Heaven and Eternity.)
In the old days, newspapers published death notices as a service. Obituaries today are paid submissions. Whatever is submitted, for the most part, gets printed. Maybe the bereaved who foot the bill are comforted by billowy sentimentalism.
Where most obits fail is their lack of specificity. They often don’t mention, say, what the deceased did for a living.
The best obits reveal their subjects’ favorite things, the movies they loved, the jokes they told, the food they cooked, the teams they rooted for.
Platitudes, though, are easier to come by.
Even so, the world would be a better place if they, along with euphemisms, were kindly laid to rest.
Or sent riding off into the sunset.
Speaking of which, obituaries should do what one did in this newspaper a few months back when it leaned on the tried-and-true “left this earth” to announce a local woman’s death.
It at least added telling detail.
“She left this earth,” the obit began, “while traveling in an RV.”