Speaking of the Dead: Obituary in the Social Media Age
The obituary, long the traditional and biographical announcement of a death in a newspapers, has found new life online and in social media. And apparently the old adage of “speak not ill of the dead” might be changing with it, especially if it helps the notice go viral.
Go to hell, Mom!
That was the essential and overriding sentiment in a death notice for a Minnesota woman published this week.
The 105-word “memorial” in a small-town newspaper in Minnesota was unquestionably blunt. The Redwood Falls Gazette in Redwood Falls, Minn. — population 5,254 — removed the notice from its website this week after it sparked an outcry from many readers who argued it went too far.
The notice opens in typical fashion. Kathleen Dehmlow (nee Schunk) was born in 1938 in Wabasso, Minn., and married Dennis Dehmlow 19 years later. The couple had two children, Gina and Jay.
By the third paragraph, the death notice takes an unexpected turn.
“In 1962, she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California,” it reads. “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.”
The notice ends on a particularly harsh and bitter note.
“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
Now without delving into the personal drama of the Dehmlow family, the comments to Fox News after notoriety came do shed some light on how this most traditional of forms is reflective of changes in society.
Jay Dehmalo, 58, told the Daily Mail that his mother, who died Thursday at the the age of 80, prompted a dysfunctional childhood
“We wanted to finally get the last word,” Dehmalo told the news outlet. “You could write it all down in a book or turn it into a movie and people wouldn’t believe what we went through.”
The siblings wrote that Dehmlow “abandoned” them in 1962 as she became pregnant and moved to California. Dehmlow’s parents then raised Dehmalo and his sister.
“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgment,” the now-removed obituary read. “She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
Dehmlow’s sister, Judy, described the obit to the Mail as “nasty,” and said it had “hurt the family tremendously” before questioning why people are discussing it because “it’s not important.”
“Not important?” Dehmalo asked. “Sure. They have no idea what we went through and back then, in the ’50s and ’60s, nobody talked about anything.”
That older generation mentality is running into not only a new generation of folks, but also into the online world in which everything is handled publically. No surprise then that the obituary is reflecting these changes.
We’ve come a long way from the days when obituaries were simple lists of survivors, college degrees and charities to which memorial donations could be sent.
Today, whether an obituary is straightforward or silly, it has a reach far beyond just the subscribers of the deceased’s hometown newspaper. Sitting in Seattle, an internet user can keep up with the obituaries of former teachers in St. Paul.
Part of that is possible because of Legacy.com, a company that partners with more than 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe to publish obits and maintain online guestbooks.
“Legacy.com publishes an obituary for 75 percent of the people who die in the United States each year,” said Katie Falzone, the company’s vice president of operations.
With those obits come online guest books open to reader contributions. The company has a team of 95 screeners who work 24-7 monitoring those comments. You may have learned it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, but not everyone subscribes to that theory. The worst time to see a cruel comment about a loved one is just after he or she has died.
“For the handful of people who leave truly nasty notes in the guest book, I suspect part of the motivation is that they feel this is their last chance to share how they feel about the deceased,” Falzone said. “For some, it’s no doubt cathartic to send the words out into cyberspace, even if they know we won’t publish their message.”
Those who scheme to use obits as the last word are rare — most deletions have to do with copyright infringement relating to lyrics or poems, or too-personal info the deceased’s family may not want shared.
“The overwhelming majority of entries we receive are kind, loving and supportive,” Falzone said. “Our users share funny memories, life lessons the deceased taught them and stories about how the deceased touched their lives.”
But in the traditional home of the obituary, the newspaper, sentimentality is business. And with death a certainty in life, memorializing is about as close to a perpetual revenue stream as publishers had. Until now, anyway.
When Lynn Dooley’s mother died earlier this year, she wanted to pay tribute to her mother and her mother’s friends.
“I was trying to honor the people who would read it,” Dooley recalled, “so they would know how important they had been to her.”
But all those words were expensive.
The obituary, which ran once and took up about half a column in the Marin Independent Journal, cost Dooley close to $1,000 dollars. “I felt taken advantage of,” Dooley said.
Newspapers typically charge by the line for obits. Charges ranges from $3.15 per line in the Santa Cruz Sentinel to up to $263 for the first four lines in the New York Times. Add a photo and the price goes up considerably.
“It’s probably among the most highly profitable advertising format in a newspaper,” according to former newspaperman Alan Mutter, who now teaches at the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism. And don’t bother to ask for a discount, says Mutter. “Buyers really have very little negotiating leverage.”
But most think obituaries will just evolve to the digital world rather than disappear all together.
Still, it’s too early to write an obituary for the print obituary yet.
“The printed obituary isn’t totally going away,” said Jessica Koth, public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association. Older people, naturally, are more likely to find their cohorts in the obituary column and those same older folks may likely prefer a printed obit over a virtual one.
But that may be changing. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 58 percent of senior citizens now have access to the internet.
Online obits can also go beyond words on a page, whether electronic or paper. Guest book users can upload videos, webcam messages and photos. And with the internet has come a change in tone. It’s the witty, entertaining, and, yes, sometimes blunt wording of these web-age obits that have altered the ancient art.
When my dad died in 2014, at age 93, his obit noted that he “would have liked the Minnesota Vikings to be his pallbearers, so they could let him down one last time.” It’s not an original line (you can find it online for almost any pro team), but it gave our family doctor such a laugh he cut out a copy of the obituary and still carries it around in his wallet.
“Today, obituaries are more informal and personal,” Falzone said. “Families are sharing details that previous generations weren’t comfortable acknowledging publicly — for example, struggles with mental illness or addiction.” She notes that technology and social media have no doubt influenced this change, making people more comfortable with exposing personal details online.
My grandfather always opened the paper and read the obituaries first, usually with some version of “Need to check the roll call first, make sure I’m not on it.” That was before the social media age, of course, and to that generation and type of person anything other than a glowing review of the dead would be an unspeakable breach of respect. While there is something to be said for honesty, society will apparently have to deal with obituary as commentary, whether we can live with it or not.
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