It’s by no means a newly minted word, but I have just been made aware of its existence: obiticide. Treated by some as a joke and others as a lapse of journalistic rigor and ethics, obiticide is the word that journalist and press accuracy expert Craig Silverman has invented to describe the erroneous or malicious publication of someone’s death.
The idea of obiticide fascinates me for several reasons. Apart from my personal interest in the ethical issues related to erroneous reporting, as a translator and copyeditor, I also have a stake in the quality and reliability of published material—including obituaries. I often look up birth and death dates mentioned in a text to ensure they are correct or to verify whether a person is still alive. If a person cited or quoted is no longer living, I may need to adjust a verb tense or suggest a slight change in the way an author has phrased a statement. I’ve never written an obituary, but I have drafted and edited eulogies, condolence letters, and internal and external statements regarding the passing of someone in particular for a number of clients. It’s a demanding assignment; nothing is more offensive to a person’s family than an erroneous attribution. It may be a gross, but forgettable, gaffe to state that an executive graduated from university X when he actually graduated from university Y while he is alive and kicking, but it’s an unforgivable sin to make the same mistake in an obituary or eulogy. It’s important to confirm all information and consult a number of sources.
Perhaps the most famous response to a precipitously published obituary is Mark Twain’s wry (and often altered) statement “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” As a copyeditor, I have to admit that its paraphrased version “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” has more punch, but the story goes that this is only an embellished rendition of the original quote. A Wikipedia article about false obituaries claims that derogatory comments contained in a prematurely released obituary prepared for Marcus Garvey so depressed him that he suffered a secondary and fatal stroke. If true, this could be considered a case of literal obiticide. Times and sensibilities have changed. A student newspaper’s recent rush to announce the death of university football coach Joe Paterno on the basis of unconfirmed sources has led the entire American press industry to reflect upon the pressure brought to bear on editors by a never-ending onslaught of tweets and tips from other electronic sources.
The Wikipedia article quoted above features a ghoulish list of people who have survived to read their obituaries, including an unfortunate few who have been forced to go to court to annul their erroneous, but legal, status of deceased person. Twain was not the only writer to read about his own demise. During the First World War, Robert Graves was erroneously reported as a casualty of the Battle of the Somme, causing the Times to unwittingly publish a false obituary and the Peruvian newspaper la República erroneously announced the death of Gabriel García Márquez in 2000.
However, intentionally false obituaries have been used to appropriate the goods and property of hapless victims. The Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh (The Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People) is an Indian organization that fights for the rights of people who have been declared dead by corrupt officials in cahoots with interested parties seeking an easy and definitive way to seize their property. The organization was founded by farmer by the name of Lil Bahari, who was refused a bank loan in 1976 due to the fact that official records listed him as deceased. To his shock, he discovered that his own uncle had bribed an official to register his death in order to win title to Bahari’s land. It would seem that such a crime would be easy to rectify, but Bahari fought bureaucratic tape for eighteen years before managing to annual his official death status in 1994. During that period, he resorted to a number of publicity stunts to bring attention to his earthly existence that included the staging of his own funeral, a public demand for a widow’s pension for his wife, and a run against Rajiv Gandhi for political office.
The very idea of writing obituaries for a living might make you laugh or give you the creeps, but for many journalists, it’s a serious profession. Obituary writers in the United States and Canada even have their own organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, which confers awards for the year’s best obituary writing. More information about the books pictured in this post and others on the subject can be found on the society’s website. Occasionally other journalists are asked to prepare obituaries for distinguished people they have written about in the past. Mel Gussow, a career theater critic for the New York Times, spent the last weeks of his own life helping his colleague Charles McGrath prepare an obituary for Pulitzer prize-winning author Saul Bellow. In 2011, six years after Gussow passed away, the New York Times published an on-file obituary that he had written for Elizabeth Taylor, adding a note explaining that “Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. William McDonald and the Associated Press contributed updated reporting.” Why did they run a slightly edited version of the obituary Gussow had written years before? According to the Wall Street Journal, NYT obituary editor Bill McDonald told them that Gussow’s work was “too good to throw away.” McDonald was right. Neither too critical nor excessively maudlin, Gussow’s article records the ups and downs of an actress who survived her own legend, from her childhood success in National Velvet to her bouts with addictions and failing health. He records Vincent Canby’s statement “More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark,” as well as Taylor’s own rye comment to Richard Burton, “If I get fat enough, they won’t ask me to do any more films.” More than just an obituary, it’s a well-written piece of copy that is a pleasure to read over and over again. Economist magazine dedicates a full page every week to the obituary of some distinguished person. So what how do people know that less-distinguished folks are no longer around? The world knows when the rest of us have kicked the bucket if the law requires it or we have generous friends or family members willing to pay. I’m not joking: not all, but many, newspapers treat obituaries as a form of classified advertisement.
If you ever find yourself in the position of being the friend or family member charged with writing an obituary, you can find plenty of advice in the Internet. ObituariesHelp.org, for example, offers a checklist of things that an obituary should include and advice about how to avoid identity theft (in case you thought all the evil-minded people in the world are located in Uttar Pradesh, think again). However, the deceased’s identity is not the only identity vulnerable to abuse. Some newspapers have very narrow editorial policies concerning what goes into a person’s obituary. Can a newspaper refuse to print what you want to say in memory of a loved one? Yes, it can. In their online Obituary Forum, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers notes a disturbing case of post-mortem obiticide that brings to mind one of my grandmother’s pet phrases: If he wasn’t already dead, this would kill him. I offer the site’s June 22, 2011 post verbatim:
John Millican died on June 11. To honor his partner of 10 years, Terrance James filled out the paperwork for an obituary notice in the Batesville Daily Guard. But when the obit ran five days later, James was not listed as a survivor. Instead the notice featured the names of Millican’s deceased parents, and his three siblings, with whom he had little contact.
When questioned about the omission, Pat Jones, the Arkansas newspaper’s general manager, told the blog Queerty: “It’s not a gay thing. We don’t list unmarried couples, in-laws, or pets in the free obituaries.”
After receiving numerous complaints, the newspaper in question has stated that it may review its policy. This decision arrives a tad late for Terrence James, but it’s a move in the right editorial direction.