Sometimes you might really be surprised by the kinds of things that cause consternation to newspaper folk.
Let’s take obituaries, as example. For years, lots and lots of years, really, newspapers large and small took the same approach to obits, that they were the accounts of an individual life and death, and hence, at least for our purposes, news stories. And, like most news stories, most of those newspapers retained the right to edit those obituaries, both for respective styles, and for the predictable but still sad fact that accuracy can wane along with activity when it comes to our dear departed. Uncle Nester, who never held a job, stayed drunk most of the time and carried on something awful with that floozy down at the Hitching Post can tend to become the “late, great God-fearing family man” once he kicks the bucket.
That began to change rather fundamentally, however, about 10 or 15 years ago when newspapers, having fallen into trying financial times, began to look near and far for new revenue sources and since folks dying is about as steady a revenue stream as you are apt to run across, began to treat obituaries, not as news stories, but as advertising, and started charging for them, and hence, letting folk say pretty much what they want.
This, they do in all manner of ways—some charge by the line, some by the word. Some of them will tell you that Aunt Sadie died and will be buried Tuesday for free, but if you want to say much more about her or who she was kin to, it’s gonna cost you.
So, today, the newspaper world is divided, among other ways, between those who charge for obituaries and those (almost exclusively small, community weeklies like mine) that do not. For years, I used to take some satisfaction in telling folks, “We’ll bring you in the world (birth announcements), and we’ll marry you off (wedding announcements) and we’ll take you out (obits), and you can pay for all the rest.”
Now, I am more inclined to just answer, “we don’t charge for obits — yet.”
And in some ways that great schism between “them that does and them that don’t” helped solve another previously existing trend that was becoming a problem—the folks that die dumb. Toward the end of the pre-charging days, some self-believed higher brow publications had begun demanding that detailed causes of death be included in their free “public service” publications of obits. This, they said, was necessary to augment “the public’s right to know.” And that could get a bit awkward.
See, I just really doubted whether the public’s interest was truly being served to learn that, let’s say, Mrs. Henrietta Holyoke of Rt. 2, Box 36B, Houlka, choked one Sunday dinner on a pork chop bone. I figured out right quick that it was the bone-chokers and the kindred croakers who were going to muddy up that pool of journalistic purity.
Because there is such a thing as dying dumb.
There may not be any real good way to depart this earthly sphere, but dadgum it, there sure are some bad ones. When someone dies in battle, we can talk about heroism and sacrifice. When someone dies of either lengthy or sudden illness, we can summon up words like tragically long-suffering and prime of life, and things like that.
But when some poor slob does a full-gainer into an empty swimming pool, or tries to catch a water moccasin with his teeth or chokes on a pork chop bone, that is a dumb way to die.
And I really don’t believe these unfortunate folk would have been uninformed of the latent dangers of such endeavors or that the newspaper’s printing them would keep them from happening again.
Because you see, there is a little cause-and-effect that’s at play here, because my mythical Henrietta notwithstanding, it is the living dumb, who tend to frequently become the dying dumb.
And it used to trouble me, because I just wasn’t convinced that the public’s right to know that Henrietta klutzed-out at the dinner table and went to her reward would be sufficient to offset the humiliation that Mrs. Holyoke’s survivors would have to endure when everybody and his Uncle Ned were made aware of it in the newspaper.
But, with folks now paying for their loved ones’ obits, the dumb death dilemma has partially gone away—except, I guess, for us holdouts, of course.
But folks, there is a way for you, the citizens of this state to protect yourselves against any potential future indignity’s appearance on the pages of your local newspaper.
Why, all you have to do is subscribe — and maybe even advertise, and we can keep running respectful, common-sensibly edited obituaries for free.
Just think of it as dying dumb insurance.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.