Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to Write an Obituary That’s a Genealogist’s Dream

Michael and I had left the meeting and were picking our way around puddles in the parking lot. Everything in the brisk, early morning air felt surreal to me. On another day I would have blamed the feeling on the lack of caffeine, but not on this morning.

“Hey,” my husband, Michael, began. I jumped. 

“What?” I yelped, caught fussing in my own thoughts. At the sound of his voice, my mind bolted to wondering what new disaster I’d missed, hoping it was only dog poo. Looking at my boots, I muttered, “Did I step in something?” 

“Huh?” he said, watching me curiously. “No, it’s just that you got a little intense back there, with the obituary and all...”

Michael isn’t particularly indirect or careful as a rule, but as we had just arranged for my father’s cremation, I wanted to appreciate his efforts.

“Oh. Really?” I managed, feeling my raw, bruised emotions rising. I gulped, thinking back to the meeting. “I just want to do it right.”

“I know,” he sighed. “Starbucks?”

I nodded, grateful for a change in subject. Michael’s a very smart man, having survived decades with me, but we had never been in this situation. We never had been the first point of contact. We had never gotten that first call in the middle of the night. We had never been the first to hear that Death had dropped by to make a pick-up. In the span of seconds, were called up to direct the show. Suddenly, we were no longer the kids. We had transitioned into directing of my father’s end-of-life show. We had to make the decisions; big, sad, tear-drenched decisions, each one exposing new knots of pain and anguish, unleashing tsunamis of worry and tears. How did this happen? When did we stop being kids?

We pulled ourselves together; Michael was quicker at it than me. I started by reminding myself that I knew something about death and the details. After all, as a writer and a genealogist, I see someone’s post-death paper trail almost daily. That’s when it hit me and a new layer formed over the pain, anguish, tears, and worry. I was the one who had to get it right. Suddenly, this was more than saying good-bye; this was about the details of his life and death that would live on in permanent records. This was about genealogy!

I wanted my father’s obituary to be a shining example of accurate records and a true characterization of the man that he was. This was not going to be easy. I had all the records, but admittedly, his life of nearly-ninety-five-years, was as complicated as it was long. While I did not want any misinformation floating around, there were some aspects that, despite their validity, would not...honor him. If anyone else wrote it, it was bound to be full of mistakes, but at the same time, while I have written millions of words in my lifetime, I had never written an obituary.

I have, however, read hundreds, or more likely, thousands of obituaries in my lifetime. I knew, as a genealogist, that the flowery “he was worshiped by his community and adored by the birds and the fauna...” not only made me gag, but would also take up words. Since obituaries are now priced by the word, just like an ad, every word in his obituary needed to earn its place. I wanted future genealogists have facts, but I wanted also wanted give them a realistic story, depicting who my father was. 

My father lived in many places over his long life. Something to consider even before you turn on your laptop is where should the obituaries be placed? If they are going to several papers in widespread locations, then you may want to tailor each obituary to make it relevant for the location where it is being published. Keep in mind that each obituaries are now priced by the word, and can cost one hundred dollars or much more, depending upon the publication. I looked at it as my father’s last official mention, and his was a long life that stretched across the hemisphere, so it was worth the investment to place his obituary in more than one location.

My father’s life was fascinating. It held endless tales, but many of them were too long or too inappropriate for his obituary. We had to wrestle with what to include and what to omit. I knew that this was going to be an obituary fraught with feedback, comments, and opinions, but this is typical and I knew that there was little anyone can ever do to completely mitigate this. No one is immune to this, particularly when writing about someone who lived a life as long and as interesting as my father’s, but one can create an obituary that future genealogists will praise. 

Perhaps the most important characteristic that a good genealogist needs, is the ability to make sound, reasoned judgements in difficult situations. Therefore, I have developed a loose template for a well-written obituary, along with some of the dicier decisions that I had to make, and how I made the judgements that led to what I included in the finished copy. I’ve also included some difficult situations that I did not encounter, but that are known to happen.

So let’s get started. Be sure to gather all of your original documents, and check for the correct dates, locations, and spellings, before you begin. If you don’t have original documents, find copies and double check all of it in advance whenever possible. That way you make fewer mistakes and the process does not become an endless chore.

An obituary can be looked at in parts. While every person’s situation is unique, an obituary should cover certain aspects of their lives and putting this in order makes it easier for both the reader and for the future genealogist.

Part One:
This covers the legalities of the deceased and the details at the time of death. Who, where, what, when, and sometimes why, represent the framework to start with, but in the case of an obituary, you start with the most recent news: the death. 

Using my father’s real obituary from The Daily Interlake, in Kalispell, MT, as my example, this is what the opening looked like:

“Douglas Robert “Bob” Birk, 94, of Aurora, Colorado, and formerly of Marion, MT, passed away on November 27, 2013, in Englewood, Colorado, following a short illness.”

Looking at it, you will notice that I began with the full name of the deceased, with his nickname inserted in quotes. This helps identify the deceased to your audience. It also gives future genealogists both the full name and the nickname, helping to broaden their search in an accurate way. In the case of someone who has a common name, the more specific, the better. Giving his exact age, in my father’s case, 94, helps to accurately identify him and to rule out any others.

Where #1: 
This comes in two parts. The first what comes next in order with the second “where” following just a bit farther on in the article. The first mention of “where” lists where they officially lived (i.e., “of Aurora, Colorado”)at the time of death. The first location will define records pertaining to a legal address. If the deceased lived in many places, as my father did, or if the obituary is being placed in a paper other than the where he last lived/died, then it is a good idea to include that local reference. In my father’s obituary for the Montana paper, I listed “formerly of Marion, Montana,” which is near Kalispell, the newspaper’s location. 

This is the simple one; they died, but “passed away” is a gentler term. In this portion, don’t use “croaked” or “was smashed into the street by a garbage truck,” or “was run over by a train while napping on the tracks,” in an obituary. If you must, use gentler terms, no matter how amusing the death or what a great story it makes. Any further description should be listed under the “How” portion. 

This gives the date of death, not the burial. Please give the exact date exact rather than saying something like, “...died last week...” Some newspapers have good, overworked, underpaid editors who will fact-check, but please do not risk it.

Where #2:
The second location covered by “where” follows the date of death and explains the location where they died. This is important as it also tells the future genealogist exactly where to find the death certificate. In my father’s case, it was Englewood, Colorado, near his official address, but different. 

Next comes the opportunity to enlighten the public how the deceased bought it, although, this is again an example of a phrase that should not be used, so please don’t use it. In my father’s case, it was a weird gallstone overload, but at 94, rather than say that he died from natural causes, I mentioned that he died after a short illness. If he had been sick with it for an extended period of time, say over a year, I might have said, an extended illness. If it was a specific disease, such as MS, it’s nice to raise awareness by mentioning it. However, if someone dies of the ravages of long-term syphilis, or something equally salacious, please reconsider mentioning it at all, despite the public health warnings it may give. Usually something like, “following a brief illness” or “in an accident” or even “following a long battle with cancer,” is enough to satisfy everyone.

Part Two:
This is where the chronological part of the obituary begins, usually with the names of his parents (include the mother’s full maiden name as well as husband’s surname), the deceased person’s birthdate, and their birth location. Once this is complete, the balance of the paragraph is good place to insert a brief story or two about his or her early life. Finding accurate stories, even as secondary sources, are like finding a gold mine to genealogists.

Part Three:
This section transitions from childhood to adult life. It contains education, marriage(s), work, and stories about his or her adult life, including honors, accomplishments, activities that were important, travel, etc. It is helpful to include any dates and locations that relate to these events. This is also a good place to include information that develops a picture of the life of the deceased. It doesn’t have to be all awards and achievements and is often much more rewarding to when it reflects the personality of the deceased. It is easier to write in a chronological format, especially at a time when you are not thinking clearly. It is also much easier for the reader to follow and to accurately grasp the details. 

Some things to consider when writing Part Three:

*Should a spouse pass along the way, it is important to note their full name, including maiden name, if you have it, the date, the location of their death, and the location of their burial. 

*A child who has passed can also be mentioned, but unless there is a story to add connecting with the person who is the topic of the obituary to their child’s death (i.e., “he struggled to save little Johnny from the flood, but it was too late”) then it s usually better to wait to name the child until later in the obituary under a list of those who proceeded them in death.

*When making a decision about writing an obituary for the many-times-married- and-divorced: This can be a nightmare, particularly as we are coming to a point where those dying lived in an age where divorce and re-marriage was much more acceptable that in previous generations. Thus, this will be a growing issue for generation to come.It can be a source of frustration and stress. what I have found its that the more marriages and divorces one has had, the bigger headache. This situation is discussed in more detail below, but after much misery, a good basic rule of thumb is to list a marriage if the marriage ended in the death of the spouse while they were married or if they were still married at the time of death and the spouse is still alive. Beyond that, with marriages ending in divorce, it comes down to situational judgement, discussed below.

Part Four:
This part winds down the life of the deceased, giving details and explaining the last pertinent facts, such as what they did after retirement, or in my father’s case, where he lived, what he did, and how, when and why he ended up in Colorado when he died, after living in more than a dozen different places over his long life (I did not mention every single place and don’t feel that you need to do that either.)  

Part Five: 
This is portion, to a genealogist, very important. It is also the part that requires the most thought and judgement. This part lists who preceded him/her in death and those who remain. This is where you need to be precise by listing each person, their connection to the deceased, and by giving their full names, correctly spelled. Here you have a very important opportunity to help future genealogists by connecting the deceased to other family members. The more the better, but unless that fourth cousin played a big role in the life of the deceased, other than simple DNA, then draw a line somewhere after second cousins or in the case of a large family, before. Also, you do not have to include how the niece that preceded him in death was related, other than as a niece, and by clearly giving her full name. However, you can help posterity if, for example, that niece was married a few times, by including her maiden name, plus her married names in order of marriage. 

Much of the same is true for the living, meaning family, but it is vital to consider the  feelings of those left behind as well as the wishes of the deceased. This is where my father’s obituary became tricky. While each person is unique and their lives contain many stories, some aspects of those tales, though important, can present uncomfortable problems for the living, and not just the poor soul wrestling with writing the obituary. An important rule to remember: Obituaries, are also to honor the deceased individual, not to embarrass him or her, or to relate awkward information, no matter how they might have deserved it, or how they might have enjoyed it. 

Issues That May Arise Overall and My Personal Experiences:

I will tell you now that there are issues in most long lives that make us all squirm. If you do not have one of these scenarios in your situation, then count yourself lucky. For the rest of us, some case studies below may provide you with a start to answering some dilemmas.

Marriages, divorces, life partnerships (both current and former), former step-parents, illegitimate children (those relatively unknown or unacknowledged by he deceased), and once-step-children (following a divorce), legal indiscretions, public embarrassments, and life’s little National Enquirer moments crop up frequently and all require difficult decisions. Each one needs to be carefully considered, case-by-case. 

First of all, ask yourself, do we need to include this? How would this help or harm the living? What would the deceased say about including this detail? The key here resides in what the deceased would have wanted and how to present it without injuring or embarrassing the living. An obituary, despite it’s value to genealogists in the future, is also a playground for unasked for gossip, opinions, and the recitation of mistakes, of today. Please do not let this stop you from honoring the deceased, but keep this in the back of your mind as you write this. Even the most benign life can be picked apart by a diligent, disgruntled person and there is something about death that makes these people come out of nowhere. Acknowledge it, and prepare yourself, but give it little more attention. In my case, I received a call out of the blue on Thanksgiving morning just as the sun was rising. This came from a “friend” of my father’s who “just had to tell” me some awkward things. Fortunately, the obituary was complete and this call did not cloud my thoughts as I wrote - another reason to write the obituary as soon as possible and before others interject their “opinions.” Remember that, when writing the obituary, it can only be helped by good judgement and organized thoughts. At a time where everyone is emotional, this calls for rational decisions. Even so, life will present you with some awkward, uncomfortable situations to place in the obituary.  

Some Scenarios:

In the case of a female senator caught in an indiscreet relationship, and has then jumped out of a hotel window in the buff, it is likely that the media has said enough and the writer need not include any more of those details. By the same token, that same media might crave more personal information about the family, thus limiting the personal connections in the obituary to a previously published biography, leaving out as much of sordid stuff as possible. Fortunately, since so much public information is available, such an obituary can then focus on sweet, youthful stories, rather than the unattractive end.

Few of us will be charged with an obituary for such a person, but we will be faced with unusual situations.

A good example are instances where someone outside the usual mainstream family needs to be recognized. In the case of a gay or lesbian couple who were in a relationship for a long time, but were unable to or chose not to have that relationship legally recognized, it is important to include them as part of the deceased person’s family and give them a place of honor in the obituary, as the deceased would have wished. 

Occasionally, a couple is officially engaged, when one dies. They should be acknowledged and named in a position of honor, such as a spouse or life partner. 
What about naming a pet in an obituary? It is certainly proper to name a pet, particularly if the deceased had a close bond with it and would want it to be named. In the case of a service animal or an animal that the deceased partnered with, such as in the military or in a K-9 unit, it would be as unthinkable as to omit a child, particularly when considering the relationship that the deceased had with that animal. This is even more important should the animal have died with them, either civilian or not, in an accident. 

Which brings us to work relationships, such as police, where their lives depend on their partners. It is most appropriate to list their partners and in order if there is more than one. This reference would follow mentions of blood relatives and should clearly define the partnership.

What about (I’m serious) a bigamist or someone who may not have been married, but who lived with two members (both unknowingly) of the opposite sex? Depending on the extent of shock and feuding, or even acceptance, such as Bob Marley’s situation, where he fathered eleven children happily, and in 1972, nearly simultaneously (three of his children were born to three different mothers in just under a month from April 20, 1972 to May 19, 1972)
 with equally happy women, this may require listing them as “dear friends” and even perhaps, “A, mother of his son, Boyd, and B, mother of his son, Dude,” etc., or the equivalent. Judgement, as always, is the key.

Then we come to the most common situation of all: marriage, divorce, and ex’s.

When writing my father’s obituary, everyone in the family asked me, “How are you going to handle his ex-wives?” The only way to decide, I found, was to lay out the evidence.

You see, my father was married five times. While Dad’s first marriage, to my mother, ended in her death just a month after their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, his other marriages were much different. Only his first marriage, to my mother, and his last one, to “Grandma Margaret,” as my children called her, left him a widower. 

In between, there were three marriages and three divorces. These were not pleasant, friendly divorces, but firestorms of litigation that left scars of deep resentment. The sort that never really go away. He never spoke to any of his wives in the years that followed and he would screw up his face at the mere mention of most of them, so I knew how he would feel. Still, this was not good enough.

 So, when considering this while trying to write his obituary, I had to make some carefully considered decisions.  

I found that I had to break it down to make a sound judgement. First, I knew that the marriages that did not end in divorce should be mentioned. Since I was writing the obituary and as his only natural child, I was in it. My poor husband, Michael, had earned his place by being more of a son than a son-in-law. Ditto for our four kids and their families who were there for him till the end. End of the easy part.

Then, there was Dad’s fifth marriage. Dad and Margaret had been married nearly fifteen years when she died, and despite their differences, he spoke of her with no animosity. I realize that this sounds weird, but in the context of his other three forays into matrimony, it makes sense. The criteria fit for her to be included in the obituary, based on the fact that they were still married at the time of her death and on the longevity of their marriage.

Next came Dad’s trio of ex-wives. They had to be considered. Did naming one mean that I had to name them all? What about how they felt? 

Dad’s second wife and I have a pleasant relationship, despite how Dad felt. She has two daughters who my father raised for part of their lives and after their divorce, she had another child who never met my father. This was tricky as the older girls stayed in touch with Dad and should be mentioned. Their sibling did not have that connection. The ex-wife, despite my relationship with her, was not in contact with my father. I did not want to hurt her by leaving her name out, but at the same time, I did not want to conjure up any embarrassing issues or bad memories. 

As far as his third wife, I had no idea where she was, or even if she was still alive. This called for a modicum of research. I called up my “Old Friends Network” and learned that she is allegedly, still alive, but received no other information. So many years had passed that any number of scenarios could have transpired. 

The first thing that I realized was that the situation had something in common with adoption cases that I’ve dealt with. First, in both situations, many years have passed. Second, like many closed adoptions, I have no way to know how his third wife currently felt about this long-ago marriage and that she, like many women who put children up for adoption, may have walked away from the courthouse, never speaking of it to anyone again. Since over thirty years have passed between their divorce and Dad’s death, many things could have happened in her life. Like a birth mother who gave up a child and then married years later, omitting details of that child to her new husband, the same could have happened to Dad’s ex-wife #3. If so, she might have married and omitted any mention of that brief, ill-fated marriage to my father, leaving her new husband in the dark. Should that possibility be true, and I had no way to find out, then to reveal it publicly, in print, might cause pain, embarrassment, and upset. Since news has a way of traveling faster when it contains new, awkward information, it is important, when writing something to be published, to consider the impact on others. I crossed her off the list.

Wife #4 was the easy decision. She passed away several years ago and I knew that after their divorce, she had referred to herself as a widow, erasing all mention of my father from her life, despite their marriage of six years. That feeling was mutual on Dad’s part, so excluding her was an easy decision.

There was more to this than just his wives. I was the only child that came out of any of his marriages, so that part was easy, but a more difficult question was how to handle his step-children? Of his wives’ eleven children and two stepchildren, one child was born after his divorce and never knew him, and out of the remaining dozen, only two remained in touch with him. Who should be named and how should it be phrased? What about their children?

Of his fifth wife’s children, the one that Dad was close to died a decade ago, and the remaining child, his brother, and my father did not get along. That is the polite way of putting it.  The remaining stepson, for many reasons I shall omit here, got the ax.

Naming the children of Dad’s third wife made no sense as it would then tie her kids to Dad, ending up in potentially embarrassing questions and situations. All six of them were crossed off. 

The same was true with the children of his fourth wife. Two more gone.

In the end, I realized that the two stepdaughters that he had partially raised deserved to be mentioned as they remained in contact with him over the years. Ditto for their families.

What resulted is not perfect, but it is designed to do the right thing in a case where there is no perfect solution. This is often the case and from my experience, there is rarely one obituary that pleases everyone. I have even heard of family members posting competing obituaries, each skewed to represent a completely different version of the same person’s life. Please try to avoid that.

Rules to Remember:

  • Have accurate data including dates, locations, and spellings. If you are unsure, do not include data that may be erroneous. Instead, use a term such as “allegedly” or limit the data to what you know as accurate, such as the state and not the city of birth.

*Consider how the deceased lived their lives and what was important to them when creating the obituary.

*Remember the impact on the living, so consider the information to be included from their perspective.

*Try to include accurate stories that fill out the picture of the deceased person’s life rather than using just basic facts.

*Have another close family member check it for accuracy and for things that may have been omitted.
*Despite temptation to do otherwise, leave out the unsavory stories or facts that may have colored the deceased person’s life. Even favorite phrases that are crude, despite his or her love for using them, should be omitted.

*Use the best judgement that you possibly can use. Do not over-glorify and please, omit superfluous, flowery language.

Overall, remember that, good or bad, you are honoring the life of the one who has passed and not the vanity of us who remain. It is not the time for vendettas, recriminations, embarrassing details, or re-creating someone’s life to cover-up flaws, either. The most important things to keep in mind while writing an obituary are honoring the dead, respecting the living, and providing accurate details for the future.