February 27, 2019 Brigitte Ganger

Are Obituaries Allowed to Misrepresent the Truth?

What happens when an obituary bends the truth (or even tells a lie)?

Are Obituaries Allowed to Misrepresent the Truth?
Obituaries are supposed to tell the truth. But, so often people see stories of their loved ones that are inaccurate. Are obituaries held up to the same standards of journalistic integrity? (Getty Images)

As many people unfortunately know first hand: Death can often attract family drama. All families and individuals have different ways of handling grief and funerals, and it's natural for emotions to run higher than usual in the wake of a loss. You may be surprised to learn that one common catalyst of death drama is the obituary notice.


Journalism and the rise of paid classified notices


An obituary is a summary of a person's life that is published in the local newspaper or an online memorial website. In days past, an obituary would only include life stories penned by qualified obituary journalists on staff at the local newspaper. Those published by family members in honor of a fallen relative were referred to as death notices. However, both of these forms of life story recounting are usually referred to as obituaries nowadays. That's because survivors of ordinary folks started writing in greater detail about loved ones, and including touches like photographs. 


Where obituary readers used to read stories of notable and celebrity personalities in their local newspaper, many publications include robust paid obituary sections. While newspaper staff will usually edit paid obituaries for typos and style errors, they cannot verify the biographical details and timeline of events contained in each and every paid obituary advertisement. Like other paid ads in the paper, a newspaper will usually publish an obituary if it meets their content guidelines; however, the information contained is not held up to the same journalistic standards of editorial articles. 


This can be confusing for readers who spot omissions, errors or downright falsehoods in the story of a person they knew. 


Misrepresenting the truth in an ad


Just because paid obituaries aren't written and fact-checked by qualified journalists doesn't mean they are allowed to spread fake news. No published ad can legally spread false information, but the content depicted is allowed to be persuasive, biased and marketed toward a particular audience. A classified obituary notice is a perspective on a life, usually summarized by a person who knew the deceased person well. Because the writing of most paid obits falls to a close family member or friend, the retelling of the deceased person's life story is subject to their interpretation of it. 


Emotions run high when a death has occured in a family. There is anxiety to tell the story right, and properly memorialize the deceased person in a way that honors them. When a well-meaning amateur obituary writer gets part of the story wrong, there can be an uproar amongst those who survive the deceased individual. 


What happens if an obituary writer inadvertently misrepresents the truth?


When an error has been made in a printed newspaper obituary, there is no way to change the version of the story that has already been delivered to homes and businesses within the paper's circulation zone. However, newspapers routinely print corrections and retractions when an error such as this has been made in a subsequent edition of their publication. If a printing error has occurred, whoever submitted the original story to the newspaper should contact the obituary department to inquire about a correction.


If the obituary is displayed online, the newspaper or website that hosts the story will usually allow edits to the digital version of the story. If you have created an online obituary that contains errors, it's usually possible to log in to the website and make corrections on your own. If not, contact the newspaper directly to see what can be done. 


What happens if an obituary intentionally misrepresents the truth?


In some cases, obituary writers craft a story that intentionally distorts the truth. Whether the reason is to hide a divorce, exclude children from another marriage, exaggerate the accomplishments of the deceased or leave certain relatives out of the list of survivors or decedents, there are many reasons obituary writers tell falsehoods. 


These kinds of life stories can lead bad blood between loved ones, and complaints to the obituary publisher to set the record straight. As long as the notice doesn't violate their content standards (usually including things like libel, defamation and hate speech), most newspapers and obituary publications will not be able to help outraged readers with an inaccurate obituary notice.


Direct family members, however, can published their own version of the life story for their own records, and to provide an alternate account of a memorable person. 


Obituaries that aren't quite true


Obituaries should stick as closely to the facts as possible. People who take liberties with the truth in a life story dishonor the dead, as well as those who are living and grieving the loss. Obituary writers must abide by publication guidelines, and ensure that the surviving family is respected in the written tribute. Every effort should be made to correct a story that has been misleading about the events of a deceased person's life. After all, this is the final record of their life—accuracy matters.

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