April 23, 2017

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Online world sparks new life for old tradition of obituaries – CNET

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In the same way cat videos and local news gaffes are quickly shared on Twitter and Facebook, a stellar obituary makes the rounds. Every few months now, a good obit goes viral.

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Online obituaries have definite advantages over the paper kind, but the printed version is still easier to tuck away in a memory book.


Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

Val Patterson of Salt Lake City used his own 2012 obit as a confessional: “As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971.”

Chris Connors’ 2016 obit reveals the Maine man’s “regrets were few, but include eating a rotisserie hot dog from an unmemorable convenience store in the summer of 1986.”

When Pat Stocks of Toronto died in 2015, her son Sandy used her obit to list the old TVs and knick-knacks his mom left behind, noting that if anyone wanted them, “You should wait the appropriate amount of time and get in touch. Tomorrow would be fine.”

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.

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Online guest books give mourners a chance to remember the dead publicly.


Screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

“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.”

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.

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Click here for “Logging Out,” a look at death in the digital age.

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.

We’re a world of social media sharing now, from birth all the way to death.

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