What’s News in Big Cities—Especially the Obits—Is Increasingly About Strangers

For readers of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other big city papers it’s ever harder to read about someone you actually know, or have seen in person. The obit sections of big newspapers seem—probably for reasons of digital traffic—increasingly about people of national and international renown. Locals going to eternal rest are written about in death notices paid for by the family.

As writer Barbara Holland put it in a 1999 Washingtonian article, “Serious newspapers are all about strangers. That’s how you can tell they’re serious.”

Along with writing occasionally for the Washingtonian, Barbara wrote books, taught at several colleges, including American University, and sometimes worked as a journalist to make ends meet. Here’s the opening of a story she wrote describing what it was like to work at a weekly newspaper in Loudoun County, Virginia.

“This is Barbara,” I say in my sweetest faux-Virginia voice. “How may I help you?”

“This is Alice Higby. You printed my daddy’s obituary like you said you would, and you still didn’t get it right.”

I remember her daddy’s obituary, nearly a full column long, retyped and rerun because I’d left out a surviving nephew who would be heartsick to find himself, as it were, disinherited. Now what?

“You put down ‘Joseph’ Ashburn for one of the pallbearers after I told you everyone called him Joe. We wanted the ‘Joe’ in there after the ‘Joseph’ so people would know who he was.”

“I’m sure they could figure it out,” I plead. “Lots of people named Joseph get called Joe.”

“Now, you listen. I have known that boy since he was a tiny baby, and nobody has ever called him Joseph because Joseph Ashburn in his uncle’s name. His uncle that owns the filling station, over on Route 50. People reading that obituary they’d think it was his uncle.”

Oh. Her daddy’s obituary is a killer typing job, with regiments of surviving step-nieces and grandchildren-in-law and enough pallbearers to tote a battleship—not to mention  all the high-minded piety about meeting in a better world that I’ve left out—but I am the lowliest person in the newspaper’s editorial department and this is my lot in life.

My dissatisfied customer sighs. “You going to be there all day? Because I’m coming to the paper myself. I want to see you get it right this time.”

Her daddy will not rest in peace until I get it right.

Obituaries in our pages certify the county’s dead and run free of charge. Nobody, however famous, can buy a mention here without county connections. Our readers recognize their dead, and their dead’s nephews, and the blurry snapshot of the deceased himself, posed behind a birthday cake or in front of a Christmas tree.

We who work here at the paper all live in the county, too, and someone at the next computer station is likely to say, “He was my high school math teacher” or “She used to wait tables at the diner.”

Back before my time, we ran a routine obituary for a young local woman untimely called to her maker, complete with funeral plans. The woman’s aunt called the paper in hysterics: She had seen her dear niece only last week, in rosy health. What happened?

An investigation revealed that the allegedly deceased had sold a bummer of a horse to an acquaintance who, covered with bruises, sent us her obituary in a creative stroke of wishful thinking. We apologized in print, but a death once recorded in our pages can never quite be revoked.

Like God, the hometown weekly’s eye is on the sparrow; it’s got the little bitty babies in its hands; it files away their names. It follows the days of our lives.



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