Technically, though, the last word on 94-year-old Wilma Black, who died December 22 in North Carolina, was not a news obituary by an impartial writer. It was a paid death notice, written and placed by a family member in the Raleigh News & Observer’s advertising section.
It detailed a harrowing entry into the world, a turbulent marriage and allegations that neglect may have hastened Black’s death.
“Wilma always said that her life seemed like a soap opera,” it read. “Perhaps not so much a ‘soap’ as a modern day tragedy.”
True to formula, the tale took on a life of its own, spawning headlines such as “How not to write an obituary” and “The most honest News and Observer obit ever.” In the comments sections of those articles, readers criticized the writer for dishonoring the memory of a loved one, debated whom the author could be and questioned the newspaper’s decision to publish it; other commenters claiming to be Black’s relatives shared their quibbles with the announcement, endeavoring to set the record straight.
By then the damage was done, raising the question of whose fault it is when a vengeful obituary or death notice goes viral. As we become more comfortable broadcasting various aspects of our lives in the digital age, do adages against speaking ill of the dead or airing dirty laundry still hold?
A uniquely North American tradition
Editorial obituaries started in the United Kingdom in the 17th century as way to memorialize members of the community. The first instance in the United States appeared in 1704 in the Boston News-Letter for Jane Treat, granddaughter of Connecticut’s deputy governor, who was struck by lightning while reading her Bible, according to obit expert Nigel Starck.
Two types of paid advertisements resembling obituaries followed. The death notice started out as a legally required public notice and contained very little biographical information; the memorial advertisement, usually put out by family through a funeral home, was intended to pay tribute to a loved one and share details of final arrangements.
Today, “death notice” and “obituary” are used interchangeably as paid announcements and editorial obituaries become harder to tell apart, especially in the United States and Canada. The vengeful death notice is unique to North America, far more prevalent in the Bible Belt and the Midwest than elsewhere in the United States or Canada, Starck said.
“U.S. newspapers take a major risk in publishing paid death notices that allow detailed opinion on the person in question,” said Starck, who has studied obituaries and death notices for several books and research publications, including 2006’s “Life After Death.”
Where obituaries used to formulaic and abidingly respectful, the tone has changed as people become more open, said Halley Burns, managing editor for Legacy.com, a site dedicated to obituaries and memorials. (As part of its partnership with newspapers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, Black’s obituary was published on Legacy.com.)
“Social media drives a lot of it. People feel more comfortable these days sharing more of their private lives, even the parts that aren’t happy or glamorous, and that’s influencing how they share the news when loved ones die; it’s changing the ways they reach out for support,” she said. “And, as more of these very unique obituaries get publicity, it makes people realize, ‘Hey, an obituary can be whatever I want it to be.’ ”
More often, that openness is manifested in positive ways through humorous notices or people writing their own obituaries ahead of time, Burns said. Families of addicts often share their struggles as a cautionary tale, hoping to save others the same heartache.
Honest but not hateful
To some writers and readers, the Wilma Black notice borders on the vengeful obituary, a relatively rare type intended to assail one’s character or settle a score.
Others, including legendary obit writer Kay Powell, do not think it meets that criteria.
Powell became known as the “doyenne of the death beat” during her 13-year tenure at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where she famously wrote an obituary for Pluto when it lost its status as a planet.
To her, the Black obit reads more like an attack on the care she got at the assisted living facility than on the family, she said.
“We all bring our different life experiences to our reading of these things,” she said. “I’m used to these old Southern gossip tales where all this stuff goes on all the time.”
For example, it’s nothing like the obituary written for Josie Anello, which revealed a long-standing rift over money between her son, the writer of the notice, and siblings who “betrayed her trust” and “broke her heart,” according to the notice.
Then, there was Maria Johnson Riddick, who beat her children, ran an escort service from their home and put her children in an orphanage, according to the obit written by her son, which proclaimed, “we sang ding dong the witch is dead when mom died.”
These are extreme examples, Powell said. It’s possible to bring out peculiar or unsavory aspects of a person’s life without dishonoring their memory.
“I think it is all right to point out a person’s faults or shortcomings or tragedies in their lives. It gives you a fuller, more honest picture, but there’s a way to do it,” she said.
It’s all about intention, which usually comes through in the writing, she said. The trick is to bring out the details that defined a person’s life, good and bad, but not in a hateful way, she said.
Obituaries about addicts tend to fall into this category, she said, citing the family-placed death notice for esteemed Atlanta lawyer Marc Ritzmann.
“While Marc experienced a great deal of material success at an early age, he struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol all his life and was unable to overcome them.”
Increasingly, though, she sees death notices that read like “the family was trying to be clever to go viral,” she said.
“If people could just drop the attitude and deal with the facts, that’s a more honest way to deal with it.”
‘Exploiting’ a family’s misery
You don’t need to be a professional writer to spin a gripping tale, as Black’s notice proves from the opening line:
“Wilma Marie Voliva Black struggled into life over 94 years ago. Alone, Eva realized that her sixth child wasn’t crying and unwrapped the umbilical cord from her only daughter’s neck on December 11, 1921.”
Details of her marriage are related in equally candid terms: “Her co-star in a church play, Charles Black pressed Wilma into an elopement in May 1939. Wilma later learned that their marriage had been a cover for his sexual affair with their minister’s wife. Alcoholism and adultery continued throughout their marriage and ended in Wilma’s filing for divorce in 1969.”
And so it goes until her final years in an unnamed assisted living facility, where “family concern that she was being neglected was brushed aside” until she “died alone” and was buried “after (her son) and his mistress returned from vacation,” according to the death notice.
When reached by phone, the son accused of leaving her to die confirmed most of the details of her life as described in the notice. Yes, her brother was an Olympic wrestler; yes, she divorced her husband after a troubled marriage; yes, she moved to North Carolina in the late 1990s so he could care for her.
At that point, his narrative diverged into a story of struggle that anyone who has cared for an aging parent might relate to. He did not wish to publicly comment on her medical care or possible motivations for the sibling who he claims wrote the article, saying that to perpetuate the controversy would be “an exploitation of our misery.”
“I did what I could to take care of my mother when she needed it, and she was a good mother, even with all of her problems, and I’ll miss her,” he said, asking that his name not be published.
“She could be very sweet. She had a great sense of humor, and she was tough. She was a very tough woman.”
‘A folksy, community-based practice’
Less than a day after Black’s obituary was published January 7, it was removed from the News & Observer’s website and from Legacy.com. The newspaper did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Legacy.com hosts the online obituary sections for newspapers worldwide, but it does not fact-check or review the content from their newspaper partners. People submit obituaries to the local paper, and the paper sends them to Legacy.com for online publication.
“Legacy.com has never rejected an obituary for content, as our policy is that we publish all obituary content that our partners provide. We trust our newspaper partners to do what is best for the family when publishing obituary content,” spokeswoman Katie Falzone said.
Starck, author of “Life After Death,” said it is rare for a paid death notice to be pulled. But it’s a risk North American newspapers run in printing death notices that deviate from the standard formula.
Part of it he attributes to the “localized agendas” of major newspapers in America, where there is no one genuinely national newspaper. Every paper runs editorial obits with a local focus on a wide range of people, from community leaders to school janitors and shop owners.
The mood spreads to the paid variety, he said. “It’s a folksy, community-based practice.”
Religion plays a role as well, he said.
“People want to proclaim their faith and give thanks, often in emotional terms, for lives lived. In the UK, and (albeit to a somewhat lesser extent) the old British Commonwealth countries such as Australia, people do not declare their religious persuasions in such an unfettered manner. It’s seen as slightly indecent,” he said.
When strong editorialization permeates a death notice, it should be subjected to the same sort of ethical considerations normally undertaken by the editorial desk for accuracy, fair comment and the opportunity for an opposing view, he said.
However, “perhaps the same sort of controlling factors are not enacted in paid advertising,” making paid death notices all the more “unreliable.”
“They often contain exaggerations, lies and (as in this instance) unpleasant and unforgivably intrusive detail,” he said. “While this latest instance is not exactly ‘unique,’ it is typical of the bile that can be expressed (and published) through an apparent failure to exert sufficient ethical and editorial control.”
Maybe so. But at least one reader of the Wilma Black death notice saw room in the middle for the modern obit.
“I think this ‘type’ of obit is much more interesting than the cold, contrite obits that are published every day. They need humanization. I would like to read interesting and personalized obits that gives you insight into the person who has passed, whether you know the person or not,” a reader said in the comments of the Minnesota Public Radio post “How not to write an obituary.”
“What is wrong with making it enjoyable to read about someone’s life?”