What's the final word on obituaries?

Charging for an obituary in the newspaper never seemed quite right to me. After all, one of the first lessons I learned when I joined a news staff as a teenager was this:
A lot of people get their names in the newspaper twice: when they are born and when they die. So make sure you get it right both times.

And now, in some papers, you're charged when they die.

It's true that many larger newspapers will run a "death notice" for free. It gives only the basics: who, what, where, when. If, however, you want to say nice things about your loved one, you'll have to pay.

I'm reminded of the woman who asked her local newspaper editor to publish a long, detailed obituary about her husband, one she had written herself. But when she learned the cost would be 50 cents a word, she said, "Well, just say ‘Fred Brown died.'" But there's a seven-word minimum, ma'am, the editor said politely. "OK," she said, "just say ‘Fred Brown died; 1957 pickup for sale.'"

You might be able to commiserate with this frugal widow, especially in these hard times. But, when you think about it, there's no way to adequately portray a person's life in an obituary concocted by the funeral home and family and published in a newspaper that has limited "free" space. There's no way.

At least the paid obituary allows family members to tell readers as much as they want and are willing to pay for. Even then, they'll leave something out, something about that person that can't be described in words, paid or unpaid.

So, I'm coming around on paid obits.

And just now, I found confirmation in the late Betty Maine's poem, written in the early '80s and shared in a writing class I led at a hometown college. The title is simply "Obituary." I want to share it with you:

She died
From sudden illness
Or some other cause.
She was born
In one place
And lived in others
Before death came to call.
She was - what?
Or is it who?
Sometimes a profession is listed.
Sometimes it's just "housewife."
As if this covers
All the many facets
Of what she was to whom.
Teacher, housewife, mother, friend
Lover, dreamer, artist, writer
Cleaner of corners
Washer of clothes
Prayer, stretcher, baker, planner
Garden club member
Or just gardener,
And gatherer of flowers
To place in a bowl.
This person who is survived
By family or none,
By friends
Or lives she has touched
In a small notice
Of some several lines
(Unless she was a celebrity),
Her life is laid out
For those who did not know her
To read and pass over.
For those who did
No lines are necessary.
She has already written them
In the hearts of those who knew
What, or who she was
And this is enough.