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The Life And Death Of An Obituary

(Credit: The News and Observer/Legacy.com)

When 94-year-old Wilma Black passed away on December 22, she left behind five children, 16 "known" grandchildren, and an obituary that’s best described as candid and heartbreaking. The News and Observer of Raleigh posted Wilma’s obituary on Thursday. Less than 24 hours later it was taken down, but not before being widely circulated through social media and the subject of TV news reports. 

Traditionally, an obituary is an announcement of death and a final recollection of who a person was. Ken Garfield took on this difficult task throughout his over 20-year career at the Charlotte Observer.

"This is the last word about a person and it is powerful, emotional stuff and often almost always in a good way," said Garfield.

But when Wilma Black’s seemingly honest obituary which reads like a short novel in some parts was published, it did not leave good feelings. It left many questions: who wrote it and how did it get published?

Wilma’s obituary references an adulterous husband and a son who essentially left her to die alone. The final line describes her life as a modern day tragedy.

But Wilma’s family wants the public to realize, there are real lives attached to the names mentioned in the obituary. One person connected to the family declined an interview but responded in a Facebook message. She said her attempt to defend the son mentioned in the obituary made things worse and that she "now knows first hand how destructive the media and the internet can be when it comes to privacy, and how sucked into it our people and society have become." She added "I am very sad right now."

Ken Garfield who still writes obituaries as a freelance writer says there’s a shade of gray in obituary writing. For example, if someone wants to be remembered as handsome but they’re not the most attractive…or they want to list one but not all four ex-wives as survivors.

But he says, there’s a responsibility to make sure the obituary is a celebration and as accurate as possible. He says Wilma’s story is a cautionary tale for families to settle their differences before someone dies.

And it’s a lesson for people who take on the responsibility of publishing the last sentiments of someone’s life.

"Even though most obituary departments fall under customer service or advertising they don’t fall under the newsroom. Someone should be reading them not just for misspellings or length. But someone should be reading with an editor’s eye for potentially [liable language], families using it as a platform to wage their war, clearly incorrect information, clearly inappropriate information in any sort of way," said Garfield. 

The head of the News and Observer Advertising Department would not comment other than to say the paper knows the author of each obituary.

The obituary likely cost a good bit. The News and Observer charges about $41 a column inch. With the obituary being about 500 words, it’s safe to say it was over $500.

Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.