There's the story about the fellow who turned first each morning to the obituary pages. Reassured by not seeing his name, he dressed for work. Apocryphal, yes, but it says something about how intently this news is read. Beyond that, a newspaper's policy on obituaries serves to remind the readership whether it has a heart.
Mrs. Herbert Rapp, whose husband took his life several months ago, felt The Post showed little heart when a reporter insisted the newspaper would have to publish the means of suicide. Offended, she withdrew her request for an obituary. In part because of her objection, such details are no longer required.
Mrs. David P. Coffin failed to get an obituary of her husband's death published because of a misunderstanding over the two-week deadline. Choosing to write the obituary instead of providing it by phone, Mrs. Coffin tried to have it delivered on the last day and was advised it couldn't be accepted. Inasmuch as the deadline had not passed, I feel it should have been accepted.
Mrs. Joyce Cunningham was bitter when the newspaper would not accept a photograph of her father because it was more than three years old. The problem here is that exceptions are sometimes made.
J.M. Cameron criticized the newspaper for delaying an obituary, saying it caused friends to miss the deceased's funeral. Delays, unfortunately, are unavoidable.
All these instances are regrettable. To the families, most having their first brush with the press, the newspaper appears callous. To editor J. Y. Smith, the disappointments result from trying to satisfy requests for news obituaries that daily outnumber available space and are handled separately from paid death notices where information about funeral services is listed. Some complain this information should be in the obituaries. Requests have increased 30 to 40 percent since The Washington Star closed, and the time lapse may run to four or five days.
Mr. Smith, sympathetic and committed to the work he has been supervising for five years, hopes "people appreciate that obituaries compete with other news." If the newspaper is to serve a maximum number, criteria for this material had to be established.
The basic information for an obituary is: name/date; place of birth; number of years residing in area; immediate family; cause of death. Families are often reluctant to provide cause of death, particularly if it is suicide. Newspapers have been misled, on occasion, being told death resulted from an "accident" when in fact it was suicide, Mr. Smith says. Checks are routinely made with funeral directors who have copies of death certificates. Cause of death is generally of interest to readership.
Except for national or world figures, the average obituary should not exceed four column inches.
When it was pointed out that The Post occasionally carries an obituary on a newsworthy name without cause of death, Mr. Smith acknowledged the inconsistency. When The Post receives a news agency report in those cases, the desk adds "the cause of death was not reported." He sees the implication of a double standard, maintaining--correctly, I think--the fact of death in such a case is news and cannot be ignored.
An obituary, observes Mr. Smith, "purports to be a straightforward, if brief, account of one's life." The emphasis is on "brief," which precludes "material better suited to eulogies." There is also a restriction on pictures: one picture per column.
The Post, like other newspapers, anticipates death of well-known figures. Draft obituaries are theoretically the responsibility of the reporter familiar with the person or field. There is doubtless more assumption than fact at work here. Writing about someone's death before it occurs was never likely to become a priority. Mr. Smith recalls "starting flat-footed at 6 p.m." when writing obituaries about former Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin and film actor Charlie Chaplin. Traditionally, obituary writing was assigned to the new, young reporters. Editors paid it little attention. That has changed. Despite its limitations, The Post does it better than most today, devoting 80 percent of the space to area citizens. Its policy is to accept an obituary on request. It may not handle gracefully all of the nearly 3,000 it publishes each year. That doesn't mean its heart isn't in the right place.