Here at the Independent, we are diverse, age-wise. But we have some old-fashioned ideas. We’re serious about proofreading and fact-checking. We think classified ads are fun. We want our website to be user-friendly, but we love the fact that 88 percent of our readers prefer print.
Of all the things that have changed about newspapers since I first started as an editor 47 years ago, the one that bothers me most is the now almost universal policy of charging for obituaries. This detestable practice started in the 1990s, when some management consultant, I feel sure, pointed out how much profit was being left on the table by failing to “monetize” the obituary page. Many local papers had been bought by big chains, and the internet was starting to play havoc with their balance sheets.
It was a brilliant move, really. When your mom dies and the funeral director says it’s going to cost $500 to put her obituary in the local paper, are you going to argue with him? And, oh yes, you want to have a photo of her as well? That will be another $200.
I feel the same way about this as the late Nathaniel Blumberg, who was the dean of the journalism school at the University of Montana and a fierce critic of the news media. He referred to newspapers that charge for obituaries as “ghouls,” noting that the definition of the term is “evil spirits that feed on the dead.”
“The death of a citizen in a newspaper’s circulation area is not only news, it’s important news,” said Blumberg.
Most newspapers charge for obituaries by the word or by the line. One effect of this is that these news stories have gotten shorter as families try to save money. And some of those who die get no obituary at all.
Obituaries are important news, especially now, when limits on gatherings and fear of contagion mean that funerals and memorial celebrations can’t take place. Hospitals and nursing homes are again on lockdown. We need a place to talk about our losses. The complete and sensitively written obituary that at least begins to tell the story of a person’s life — and is printed in the paper so that family and friends can read and re-read and even save it — is more important now than ever.
I enjoy telling people, when they call to place an obituary for a loved one, that the Independent doesn’t charge for them. I encourage them to include plenty of details. They say newspapers are watchdogs. I want us to be ghoul-busters, too.