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September 9, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Dishonest Obituaries: Why Do We Tidy Up for the Dead?

When life storytelling glosses over reality

Dishonest Obituaries: Why Do We Tidy Up for the Dead?
Obituaries are expected to portray the deceased person in the best possible light. But it's not always easy. (Getty Images)

As an obituary writer, and gatekeeper of guestbook comments to digital obituaries, I've seen it a thousand times. The family member entrusted with writing the obituary does too good a job, and in the end, the story reminds no one of the person who has passed. It's normal to highlight the best parts of a person's life story. But when their real legacy is not one of unbridled grief, how do readers reconcile the written story with the truth? 


In this article, we will explore the types of lies told in obituaries, when to gloss over the truth, and how to navigate writing a life story for someone who left a legacy of pain.


Do obituaries need to be authentic and factual?


Obituaries should be as factual as possible. Names, dates, locations, and the lists of survivors and predecessors should be confirmed before being included in a life story. However, an obituary written by family and friends as a tribute does not need to adhere to the same journalistic standards as a feature obituary in a newspaper. 


Some positive bias is expected and acceptable; straight up lies are not. 


White lies in life stories


Most would agree that an obituary should be mostly complimentary. Nobody wants to read about a person's every flaw when they pass away. Not only is this disrespectful to the dead person, but it's not helpful for families who are grieving. No one is perfect, and most often these imperfections need not be mentioned in an obituary story to convey the person's character and impact. 


An obituary is usually the perfect time for white lies. If the person is described as universally beloved in an obituary, context clues and wisdom tell most readers that this is not a literal fact. The sentiments of an obituary notice should be considered a respectful summary of a person's life—not a biography. 


Big lies in life stories


While there is plenty of room for gentle white lies in obits, bigger lies are frowned upon. People don't like it when an obituary ignores a person's crimes, abuse or chronically poor behavior. In fact, an obituary that tells big lies sometimes receives complaints via the obituary guestbook, or through the obituaries editor of the publication.


Before telling a big lie in a life story, consider tidying up the obituary another way. Even if you loved your deceased relative dearly, lying knowingly about their accomplishments or character may be hurtful and invalidating for those who know the truth. 


Using vagueness


We tidy up the life stories of the dead because this act directly relates to our own feelings of mortality. Most people want to be remembered well, and hope to have their own imperfections mostly forgotten after they die. 


Rather than paint a pretty picture of their life, many families will write a vague story for their cantankerous relative. Though this may not quell the anger of those who were affected by the deceased person's actions in life, a vague obituary or death notice is a neutral choice that, at the very least, does not cause more harm. 


Example:


John Jones passed away on September 3, 2019, at the age of 75. He was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 5, 1944, to parents Joseph and Mary Jones. He will be laid to rest at a later date in a private ceremony. 



The whole truth


Occasionally, a family with beef to squash with a recently deceased relative will write a brutally honest obituary


A brutally honest obituary is a drastic move. It's important to remember that during a period of intense grief, most people aren't themselves. Anger can bubble over, especially when a person's relationship with the deceased person was complicated. While there are valid reasons to write a brutally honest obituary, most life stories do not warrant a final public lashing.  


Finding the middle ground


The world of obituaries need not be divided into beautiful lies and brutal honesty. Many families find middle ground by gently acknowledging their loved one's flaws, and then moving into their achievements. This balanced approach takes careful consideration, but can end up telling a life story that is both true and kind.


Example:


John Jones passed away on September 3, 2019, at the age of 75. He was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 5, 1944, to parents Joseph and Mary Jones. 


Dry, sarcastic, witty and sometimes nihilistic, John was an acquired taste. If you loved him, you adored him. If you didn't like him, you most likely avoided him at all costs! This was how he wanted it. His hard exterior allowed him to live a simple, quiet life alone with his wife, Suzanne, kids Charlie and Sandy, and his three mutts, Tutu, Fefe and Smalls. 


He will be laid to rest at a later date in a private ceremony. 



So, why do we tidy up for the dead?


Obituary writers should not feel compelled to sterilize, alter or exonerate their subject's life history. However, there are reasons to tidy up the legacy of a family member or friend who has passed.



  • No one is perfect. In life, each person has their own set of advantages, opportunities, limitations and obstacles. There is no learning or improving without making mistakes. When death comes, people deserve to be remembered for who they were, not the mistakes that they made along the way. 

  • If the obituary writer can think of no redeeming qualities of the deceased person, there are other ways to frame the story so that it is appropriate for a publication. 

  • As a last resort, a brutally honest obituary is an option for families looking to get the final word. Those considering this option should keep in mind that the obituary writer may come off worse than the story's subject.


What can be done about a dishonest obituary?


If you have read an obituary that you believe to be false, there are several things you can do.




  • Fake obituary




If the whole obituary is falsified—that is, the subject is still alive or never existed—contact the publisher immediately and report it as fake. A reputable newspaper or obituary publisher will investigate the veracity of the story, and remove it if necessary.


Beyond the Dash verifies each obituary by reviewing the death certificate or by contacting the funeral home that handled the death.




  • Some factual errors




Sometimes an obituary that represents a true death contains factual errors. Dates, names, survivors, predecessors and events should be researched and verified before an obituary gets published, but sometimes the family does not have enough time to do so. Because obituaries are sometimes used to announce the funeral details, there is a time crunch to publish quickly—which can lead to factual errors.


In cases like this, it's best to contact the obituary writer or the family of the deceased directly. The newspaper or obituary publisher likely won't be able to fact check a paid obit on your behalf.




  • Misleading obituary




A misleading obituary may paint the deceased in a positive (or negative) light that seems untruthful to you. Unfortunately, there is little recourse available to readers in cases such as this. Because obituaries are personal accounts, much of the content is based on the opinion and experience of the writer. If there is evidence of a lie (for example, if the deceased person was convicted of crimes that directly contradict the story), you may report it to the newspaper. 


Ultimately, the writer of an obituary is entitled to their experience and opinion. Their obituary represents their or the family's relationship with the deceased. However, there's no reason a person can't have more than one obituary story published in their honor. If you are related to the person who passed away, you may create a story for them in addition to the one that has already been published.


The takeaway


There is room for life storytellers to acknowledge imperfections respectfully. In fact, stories that are briefly honest about minor shortcomings can be very powerful for family, friends and strangers alike. While people have become accustomed to obituaries that only sing praises, this is not the most authentic way to tell a story for many people.


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