Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Writing (well, intensively proofreading) obituaries has been my stock and trade for the last five months; and soon that will no longer be the case. I thought I ought to blog about them before it's too late. (You can expect a blog, or several, in the coming months on the crime story as a thing.)

First, etymology. Lacking access to the OED, I've had to resort to EtymOnline, which is nonetheless a good resource.
1706, "register of deaths," from M.L. obituarius "a record of the death of a person," lit. "pertaining to death," from L. obitus "departure, a going to meet, encounter" (a euphemism for "death"), from stem of obire "go to meet" (as in mortem obire "meet death"), from ob "to, toward" + ire "go." Meaning "record or announcement of a death, esp. in a newspaper, and including a brief biographical sketch" is from 1738. A similar euphemism is in O.E. cognate forðfaran "to die," lit. "to go forth."
So we see that from the very first, the obituary was rooted in euphamism. Why? Because mortality is deeply scary. Like Adam tells a gang a vampires at the beginning of Buffy season 4, "You fear death. Being immortal, you fear it more than those to whom it comes naturally."

Thankfully, most of the obits that cross my desk daily say "died" in their first sentence. Only a few every week use the tollerable "passed on." Once in a blue moon I'll get an "entered into eternal rest"; and a "was received into the arms of the Lord" comes even less often.

Regrattably, I didn't get the now-famous "With trumpets blaring, Zeus, god of gods, called Daniel Reed Porter III to His Heavenly Pantheon on Nov. 21, 2006" that caused such a stir in my fair city and its environs. That one came in on my day off.

The death taboo has had its claws in me all this time. The paper has a policy, which I dutifully uphold, of verifying every obituary with a legitimate funeral home of crematory, so as to ensure that we don't publish any prank or pet obituaries unwittingly. Whenever I ask the family members delivering or emailing obituaries to tell me what funeral home has the body, I adopt the obituary jargon: "Which funeral home is handling the arrangements?" To ask, "Where is the body," seems as unutterable in this circumstance as saying something like, "So where's the stiff at, anyway?"

Yet I'm always struck by how undistraught people are when I call them up to check spellings of siblings' names and go through all the other tedia of the obit vetting process. Or when I'm called on to develop a full-fledged story out of a noteworthy obit. I was stunned when, less than 24 hours after her 19-year-old daughter had died of osteosarcoma, a local parent was able to describe to me, in painstaking detail, her daughter's movement from diagnosis to treatment to death, all while giving me a remarkable portrait of her daughter's remarkable character.

The obituary is an odd thing indeed. It is the only thing in a newspaper, aside from advertising, that is not investigated and converted into a narative by a disinterested reporter. Its authorship is always interested. This often allows wonderful things -- Mr. Porter's obit is the classic example of that. But it also allows the sort of truth-tampering that, while not on the same plane as a biased or fabricated news article, nonetheless makes me cringe. Not long before we printed the blaring trumpets of Zues, we accepted a heavily redacted photocopy of an obit that appeared in a west coast paper. The east coast relatives wanted us to remove the "ex" part of the deceased's ex-wife's title and delete altogether the mention of his "companion."

Katharsis came in the form of a NYT article about memorial websites, which employ massive editorial staffs to keep their pages clear of obit trolls -- people who, justifiably or otherwise, attach negative comments debunking declarations of the deceased's having been a "devoted father," for example. My paper's website, so far as I know, has never gotten any comments, good or bad, on any obit other than Mr. Porter's.

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