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Untimely Endings

A reader opined via e-mail that my column a couple of weeks ago ("It Used to Be Joe's Town," Nov. 17) was "tacky, tasteless and mean-spirited."

I'm guessing the reference was directed more toward my comments regarding the life of Joe Bonanno Jr., rather than my befuddlement that the Arizona Daily Star took wire on his obituary, and that the Tucson Citizen ran none at all in its news pages. (Strangely enough, Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno bought a paid obituary for his brother--to run only in the Citizen.) Those decisions are more pieces in a puzzle about the stuff we don't see in newspapers anymore, and why writing the news obituary is a declining art.

A long time ago at many newspapers, obituaries were often the domain of young reporters working on their writing skills as they were looking for a way to break into the starting lineup. Writing obits could teach a lot. You seldom see news obits any more, unless the deceased is someone with a pretty high profile in the community. Relatives who've been in the shadow of the high profile in some cases don't warrant a news obit simply because they're relatives.

Some of it may be about money. Newspapers are finding there's a lot of gold to be had in letting the bereft rhapsodize at great length--and sometimes with old portraits--on the dearly departed. The thinking may be very much like the Star's decision in years to drop a movie times column, because most movie ads listed theaters and times.

Some of it may be about space. As you've probably noticed, there doesn't seem to be as much newshole (space between ads) as there used to be, and the allocations are sometimes rather unusual.

As a result, some newspapers have opted to look upon obituaries--other than those about major celebs and players in a community--as something that can give way to more pressing news of the day.

When I joined the Star in 1986, one of the late afternoon rituals was to hand the death lists (faxed over from the various mortuaries) to a library aide, who would compare names against the Star's massive (and wonderful) biographical files, pull the envelopes with matching names and hand them over to an assistant city editor. That soul's unenviable duty was to look for someone who didn't look busy at the moment, who would see if any of the deceased matched the folks whose lives were encapsulated in the heavy brown envelopes. Any matches, and you wrote the obit.

The assigning editor truly earned a wage for that, slogging through the "why me" whining that often was code for "this is beneath me."

Typing up movie times and writing obituaries were the Zwieback biscuits for many new journalists. The tradition was part object lesson about dealing with the tedium of the business. Some assignments have to be done, no matter how boring.

And writing obituaries was a great place to test a young reporter's mettle in several areas--how to sift the best notes from a prominent soul's life, how to find the nuggets in someone whose fame was momentary. Some obits involve very difficult interviews--grieving family members who want to tell it all, or stunned family members who can barely talk.

People will say and do the strangest things when they're in grief. In the middle of an interview I did several years ago with a large family whose patriarch had died, the widow sat silently for a while as her children brought their memories to the table. Finally, she locked on my eyes and said, "I want this in the paper--my husband was the most wonderful lover in the world, so good that I don't think I can ever be with another man again."

It didn't get in the obit.

Sometimes the reporter is caught in a family feud. A reporter I worked with wrote an obituary on a prominent physician, and found a horrible gap in facts--the funeral home said the doctor had two children, but his son told us there were three: A second son was born out of wedlock. The son said his father had acknowledged the paternity, supported the son and treated him as family. His sister, however, wanted the second son left out of the story, and threatened to sue if we ran with it.

She, her husband and their attorney showed up at the front of the building late on a Saturday night with deadline looming. Her attorney and I stepped a few feet away and discussed the decedent's likely view of things, and that, in essence, leaving her half-brother out of the story would make the piece less than truthful.

Which leads us to another one of the issues that reporters used to grapple with when news obits were more in play--what to do if the deceased has a well-known skeleton in the closet.

In an earlier time, obituaries tended to be "sanitized"--any blotches on the family escutcheon created by the decedent were erased, and a politician whose convictions included multiple counts of bribery, leading to 10 years in prison, was remembered only for the good deeds. Today, and sometimes to the public's regret, we lay it all on the table.

Few editors quote John Donne's line: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" when they assign obits.

And that's a shame.

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