Monday, August 25, 2008

Obituary Etiquette - What to do?

Death is the great equalizer. Rich, poor, young, old, fat, skinny, black or white, death is the inevitable ending for all of us who had the privilege of being born.

Recently, while visiting in California with some relatives, I had the opportunity to read over some obituaries my cousin had saved from several funerals she attended. In the course of reading those obituaries, we got into a lively conversation regarding "obituary etiquette."

Now in the past, the majority of obituaries were for old people who had been married for years and the surviving spouse got to write the obituary for the deceased. If not the spouse, then the children wrote it. But in today's world, with so many young people getting killed, obituaries are now in the hands of parents, sisters or brothers and even more distant relations.

One of the major issues in our lively discussion involved children-specifically, children born to a man from multiple mothers. When a woman has children by several different fathers, those children are usually with her and therefore people know that she has four children. But when a man dies and he has a number of children, from both within his marriage and outside his marriage, what is the proper etiquette for acknowledging those children? Or if the young man never married and has a number of children, do the mothers of those children get recognized in the obituary? Should the multiple fathers of the children be acknowledged in a mother's obituary?

Now an obituary serves a number of purposes. For many families, they are placed in a bible and become part of the family history tree. The obituary helps to connect distant relatives to others whom they don't see often. An obituary is also the deceased's personal life history. So how informative should the obituary be?

Well as you can imagine, my cousin and I disagreed on the issue. She felt when a man dies and has children by a number of women, then only the children's names should be acknowledged in the obituary. I feel the obituary should list the mother's or father's name the same way the spouse of a sibling is named in parenthesis. For example, an obituary for a young man with three children by three mothers would read, John Smith, 22, leaves to mourn his three children John Jr. (m. Mary Jones), Terrill (m. Barbra Wilson), Sam (m. Keisha Johnson).

Or is it better to just say: John Smith, 22, leaves to mourn his three children John Jr., Terrill, Sam?

As the conversation between my cousin and I went on, her issue was that there isn't any need for people to know about the "baby mama's" names. The only thing relevant is that the children's names be listed. She was also adamant that anyone who didn't know John well enough to know the three different mothers didn't know him at all and therefore didn't need to know which person was the mother of each child.

I disagreed. Families are now spread out all over the country. A person not knowing the names of the mother (or father) of the deceased children isn't a reflection on that person's connection to the deceased. It is the reality of the deceased person's life and the complexity of modern society that doesn't permit people to keep up with the affairs of their relatives as much as they would like. It can also solve the problem of people who, when reading the obituary, knew, for example, that Keisha Johnson had a son, but wasn't familiar with the child's name, or for relatives who weren't aware that John had three children as opposed to two. Older relatives and today's busy lifestyle for example, sometimes makes it difficult for people to keep up with all the family relationships outside of their immediate families.

So I am asking those of you who read this column to chime in and tell me: What should the etiquette be? Should everyone write their own basic obituary since what does get written is at the will of the person writing it? For example if a young man dies and there are questions about the paternity of a child whom the mother says was his, what action should the family take? If John has always felt that Terrill was his son and the rest of the family disagreed, who should make the decision to include Terrill's name? Write or e-mail me or this newspaper (tdean@wjinc.com) and tell us your opinions on what an obituary should be and how to handle some of the situations I mentioned.

2 comments:

Cynthia said...

I don't know the answer which is why i am here. I need to know what to do when you have a man who dies leaving a wife of 39 years. Both man and wife had grown children when they married. How to be inclusive and loving and include her children when my dad did not consider them his children and great effort were made for separate property. She would want them included, he would want what she would want therefore there is the answer I guess. I guess say her entire name, then list her children whose names match hers then list my dad kids whose names match his and the connection will be obvious without having to make the distinction. Just a thought.

Arlene Jones said...

Cynthia. I think the proper thing to do is to write an obituary that says; "John Smith leaves to mourn his wife Mary, his children Jack(Sally), Katherine(Tom) and Viola. His stepchildren Linda(Harry), Michael and Ronald. Brother Lionel, Tim and Matthew, Sisters Sue, Rhonda (Eugene); Grandchildren, nieces and nephews, etc.

I am in the process of putting together a book on obituaries and would love to hear comments from others as to how they feel.