As the editor-in-chief of Nemesis, the leading source of obituaries in the Washington/Baltimore area, I would like to share one of the secrets of my success: death sells. Almost every day death is reported in newspapers worldwide in one form or another. While most expected in the obituary section, it can be reported in the crime, local, entertainment or in almost any section from the front page to the last. The media coverage a death receives and the placement of the notice depend on the way a person lives or dies. Your actions in life literally affect your place in history. In your newspaper, those whose lives or deaths touch the most people appear to get the largest coverage, while others receive minimal space in which their lives are condensed.
On February 4th, 2005 the online version of the Baltimore Sun announced the death of activist, actor Ossie Davis in an article published by Associated Press writer Hillel Italie. On that day they also announced the death of Elizabeth T. Braden, homemaker and secretary. Both notices reported the information people expect the obituary to include: the person’s name, age and cause of death, major accomplishments and information about the survivors. The differences were in the presentation and amount of information in the piece and the placement of the articles. Davis’ death was a memorial; Braden’s a death notice. Each life deserves to be celebrated, memorialized, each death treated as a loss to the community.
Elizabeth T. Braden’s life was no more and no less significant than that of Ossie Davis’. According to her obituary, by the age of 91 Braden had been a daughter, wife, mother, secretary, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend and neighbor. Her obituary says she was married for 68 years and had six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. According to the Sun, the Baltimore area resident died of a brain tumor in the assisted-living home where she lived. Braden’s Baltimore Sun obituary has reduced her 91 years of life, relationships, obstacles, joys and sorrows into 20 lines.
Both Baltimore Sun articles painted sketches of the lives of the deceased; as obituaries they fulfilled their roles as assigned by the media. The attention given to both Braden and Davis may be what is expected for someone with their varying degrees of contribution to society. If that is so, there is something wrong with the way we measure contribution. This problem does not merely exist in the Baltimore Sun.
Fred Barbash and Wil Haygood wrote Ossie Davis’ obituary for the Washington Post. Describing him as “still handsome and elegant” it was a colorful tribute to his life. Their four-page article was filled with information about Davis’ personal achievements; statements from his family, friends and colleagues and commentary on his activism efforts. While there were no pictures or polls, his obituary painted a picture of a vibrant man, someone you would be honored to have known personally.
Elizabeth Braden’s death was not reported in the Washington Post.
At Nemesis we pride ourselves on our ability to make news happen and to report it objectively. Each Nemesis obituary is a memorial and we take an active role in each obituary we report. Unlike other reporters, we take the time to investigate each aspect of the subject’s life before we kill them. In this way, we report the facts, photos and the person’s last words, thus painting a vivid picture of them in life and in death.
Yvonne Battle-Felton, Editor-in-chief, Nemesis (North Eastern Memorial Editorial Services)
P.S. Pick up the next issue of Nemesis; you never know which edition you’ll be featured in.