A few days before she died in January my mother asked me to write her obit. She had her practical side, and I am the journalist in the family after all. When the time came I wrote it up and gave it to the funeral director, who sent it on to The Kansas City Star. The Star, in turn, asked the funeral director to ask me for $500. For my mother’s obit. He sounded a little sheepish.
The obit was, I concede, a bit long. Ryan, the young man who recently answered my call at the Star, explained that the paper gives away the first nine lines free, but at the tenth line a base rate of $63.25 kicks in and, after that, another $31 for every five lines. So I was pretty far up there in the lines department. I thought there were a few bases to cover and I have a lot of brothers and sisters. Still, my mother would have leaped out of her hospital bed had I told her that the bill would approach $500. She was a child of the Depression who scraped margarine from the foil, so as not to waste any. The funeral director gently suggested that I shorten the thing, and I did. The final bill was $404, and I paid it.
But I didn’t feel good about it.
My mother, I would like to tell The Kansas City Star, was a citizen of substance and a faithful reader. Did she not vote? Did she not worry about Kansas City’s excessive murder rate? Did she not watch the occasional Royals game, painful though they often are? Did she not keep her yard nice, cutting the grass into her eighties? Did she not have many friends and neighbors who loved her, and many more who would mark her passing?
And did she not always keep each Kansas City Star on her kitchen table for three or four days, until she was sure she had harvested all of its wisdom? Did she not mail me clippings from time to time — a funny column here, a poignant story there?
Did she not have a relationship with you?
As best I can tell, the practice of charging for obituaries took off with the rise of public ownership of newspapers, when the need to boost the stock price demanded ever-rising margins of profit. I would like to meet the newspaper manager who first thought it up. I can almost see him — somehow I know it’s a man — sitting bolt upright in bed as the idea arrives. He knows that death is a private event that yearns to be made public. So why not capitalize! Sell the space! The beauty part: everybody dies.
I would like to say to him, What a genius you are, sir! An income stream stretching into infinity!
Or, maybe not into infinity, exactly, given how newspapers are faring. I would have an additional message as well. I would say, Your idea, sir, may mark the precise moment on the timeline when newspapers began a slow drift away from their readers. You forgot what newspapers are for. How about that on your gravestone?Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.