Dearth of obituaries underscores their importance

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 11:01 AM

I’ve always known obituaries are important news to our readers – you. 

But never have I had such a reminder as last week.

To back up, in recent weeks, we’ve fumbled far too often with the obituary page. Obituaries are deeply personal to family and close friends of the deceased. Messing up even one of them and adding to emotional distress for a family already grieving is one of the worst offenses we can commit.

As we struggled through a difficult transition in the personnel handling our obituaries, we made far more than a single mistake. For that, I can only apologize and tell you we worked as quickly as we could to right the ship.

I’m confident that by last week, we truly had. The obituary process is working smoothly again, we’re giving families, funeral homes and readers the service they deserve and we have long sought to give.

What tripped us up last week was not an error, but a circumstance none of us in the newsroom could remember happening.

On Tuesday, not a single full, paid obituary was submitted. How unusual, we thought, and moved on.

Hindsight is 20-20. We should have put an explanatory note in the paper.

Wednesday morning, phones in our circulation department and in the newsroom were ringing off the hook.  We received nearly 100 calls from people, some angry, others just curious why, they thought, we had left the obituaries out of the paper. Some left testy messages wondering if we were no longer publishing them.

It didn’t help that there were, in fact, a handful of free listings that give the name of the deceased and the funeral home handling the arrangements. With no obituaries and some imperfect communication, we left those out – that was our error. But the far larger issue was the absence of the narrative obituaries – that we couldn’t help.

Most people, when we explained the situation, were understanding, even amused. Many wished us a happy thanksgiving.

Adding to the somewhat chaotic air Wednesday was the fruit of a mistake that was very much ours. In a brief item about a church’s plan to give away 100 turkeys Wednesday, we published an incorrect phone number for more information. The number, one digit off, happened to be my office number, so I was fielding a dozen or more calls looking for free turkeys. 

I’m glad it was mine, though, rather than some hapless citizen. Years ago, at another newspaper, we ran an incorrect number for information about – I don’t remember precisely what, but I think a concert by a popular entertainer.

Sadly, the wrong number belonged to an elderly woman recovering from hip surgery who had to hobble with her walker to the phone each time it rang.

I dispatched the clerk who made the error to answer her phone that day.

Finally, a humbling footnote to those obituary calls. On Thursday, in the confusion of assembling the massive Thanksgiving Day paper with its dozens of advertising inserts, we failed to include the features section – the C section – in the paper. (We distributed it Friday).

Remember those nearly 100 calls for obituaries?  Our circulation department tells me we got “a couple” of calls about the missing section.

I suspect people were so immersed in the inserts promising deal upon deal that they were distracted.

But I also know how important obituaries are – and how critical it is we do everything we can to get them right. Thanks for the reminder!

 Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.