Tagged: obituaries

Which obit makes the news?

From a September 9 Facebook post by David Rodenhiser, marquee columnist for the Halifax Daily News until its demise in 2008, now toiling for Nova Scotia Power’s communications group.

In the Obituaries section of the Chronicle-Herald there are notices for no fewer than six veterans of the Second World War:

  • Joseph “Bunny” McLaughlin, army, who brought home a war bride in 1946
  • Jaleel “John” Laba, army, who later owned and operated Laba’s Discount on Gottingen Street for many years
  • Stanley Cairns, merchant mariner
  • George Haliburton, army
  • Adele Healy, RCAF secretary
  • Walter Shaw, army, wounded in Germany in 1945

There’s also an obituary for Cecile d’Entremont, who passed away at the age of 100, survived by a host of descendants including a great-great-great grandchild.

Meanwhile, leading all newscasts: a Halifax house cat has died of cancer.

In retrospect, one of the first steps in the long downward trek of newspapering came when papers began charging for obituaries, which had until the 1980s, been regarded as news stories. This prefigured, and can’t be blamed on, disruptions caused by the internet. It reflected a voracious appetite for revenue by newspaper chain owners like Roy Thompson and Conrad Black, who held little regard for the medium’s traditional service role.

John "Jeleel" Laba 1924 - 2013

John “Jeleel” Laba
1924 – 2013

Monetizing obits had the side effect of eliminating news coverage of the deaths of community members who were less than famous — people who had been injured in long ago wars, or run long forgotten working class retail establishments, or found their brides in war-torn countries far away. It made newspapers less useful, and usefulness turned out to be a commodity newspapers would ignore at their peril.

The late Esther Dubinsky of Sydney, co-proprietor with husband Newman of Whitney Pier’s legendary Sydney Ship Supply, was outraged when the Thompson-owned Cape Breton Post began charging for obits. The independently owned Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star held out for several years before falling in line with the industry trend.  Until it did, Esther instructed her children that her obit in the Post should read:

Esther Dubinsky died yesterday. For details, see the Chronicle-Herald.

 

Life lived: a dishwasher’s obituary

neilsmith-c-250On the evening of September 12, a hit-and-run driver struck Neil Alan Smith on Fourth Street North, St. Petersburg, FL, throwing him off his mountain bike. Smith, 48, a dishwasher at the Crab Shack restaurant in St. Petersburg, died six days later at Bayfront Medical Center.

When the Times announced Smith’s death on its website, a reader commented:

A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

Times editors swiftly removed the post, deeming it offensive and insensitive to the dead man’s friends and family. Then they took another, more unusual, step. They assigned reporter Andrew Meacham to look into Smith’s life and prepare a fuller obituary, in support of the simple proposition that every life matters.

The results are moving:

This much is certain about Mr. Smith: A number of people miss him.

He had a small but loyal network of co-workers and friends who are planning soon to celebrate his life.

They all describe Mr. Smith as steady and dependable. He rode his bicycle nearly four miles each way from the Hollywood Trailer Park on Fourth Street N to the Crab Shack on Gandy Boulevard, where he had worked for the past 10 years. In a business known for turnover, that is considered a long time.

“I’ll probably go through another 10 people to find somebody like him,” said Tyrone Dayhoff, 53, the Crab Shack’s manager.

Read the whole story here.

Meacham’s evocative report highlights one other thing: the terrible mistake newspapers made two decades ago, when the lure of easy money caused them to abandon obituary reporting in favor of paid death notices.

(Via James Fallows, one of whose readers contrasted Smith’s story with the Chicago Law professor who recently caused a stir when he complained of having the difficulty making ends meet on a salary well above $250,000 per year.)