Ethics of writing obituaries. There must be some. Say you’re writing an obituary for a relative you hardly knew. This sort of writing must fall under different ethical norms than if you’re writing about a member of your immediate family, eh? Do the rules change if you are a professional obit writer getting paid by the death? Can you charge more if you use more words doing it? Once you think about it, maybe the ethical rules for general writing don’t apply to obits.
Take truth, for example. Truth in writing nonfiction is a must, right? Are obits nonfiction in the same way book reports are? Or since the subject is already dead, is the truth adjustable? And now that we’re talking about it, is an obituary obligatory when someone dies?
Which raises another question—what do you say happened?
Do you have to be truthful, or can you be elusive? Most obits don’t use the word. They use dodges like, “he passed,” or “he’s in heaven.” Trying to be poetic, some obits say “he’s now resting in peace,” or “he’s in the hands of the Lord.”
So for obits, the truth’s adjustable according to religious beliefs and how sensitive you are.
About accuracy? That’s an ethical norm for obits, right? Maybe not. Obits can be way too accurate. Like, “He died of four gunshot wounds to the chest, two in his head, and one through his lower abdomen.” That’s insensitive and gruesome.
So that gives us three more ethical norms: adjustable truth, sensitivity, and soft words.
There are two basic kinds of obits: information-based and story-like.
In the former, you list information, much like the facts on a pill box. In the latter, you make up a story about the person who died, passed, rested, reached, went up to, etc.
Listing information is simple—start with dates, move to names, move to places, move to jobs, finish with donations, flowers, and the basics of internment, mass, funerals, or wakes.
Writing a story is harder. It’s not biography. It’s not personal history. It’s creative writing, which allows for contractions, first party voice, and tension. But it’s not a genre, so it’s harder to find prompts. This is why you rarely see obits written as story. What most people look for in obits is the actual age of the person, something they’ve always wondered about because the dearly departed always lied about it.
Some obits shine because they are clever: “We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.”
Others are down to earth: “Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. As a point of pride, he purported to remember every meal he had eaten in his 80 years of life.”
The New York Times knows when an obit is fit to print: “Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated valuable lessons—knowing when to come in out of the rain—why the early bird gets the worm—life isn’t always fair—maybe it was my fault.”
Lastly, a word that seems befitting when considering the ethics of obits, there’s this one. “The family of Paulo Rogério Ferreira, still consternate, and a bit relieved for his passing, invites all who enjoyed his company (whores, drunkards, cross-dressers, con artists, faggots and the entire prostitution milieu) for the Seventh-Day Mass of he who was the greatest member of the bohemian and progressive underworld, Paulo Rogério, known nationwide as ‘Hairy Mouth.’ The family thanks all who come to this deed of bravery.”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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