Sunday, February 10, 2013

What's wrong with how obituaries define family

When it comes to obituaries, I'm sure there are still many newspapers that refuse to list a deceased's same-sex partner --or different sex unmarried partner for that matter -- as a surviving family member.  But at the Washington Post that changed 15-20 years ago, years into the AIDS epidemic (and too many years at that).  So when Gail Messier died last week -- 51 years old, breast cancer -- her surviving partner Lauren Taylor (who happens to also work part-time at the Post and is one of my oldest friends) had no difficulty being included.

But Lauren wanted all of Gail's close family included, and that meant individuals whom the world describes as ... friends.  Gail was not close to her parents or her siblings.  Her ties were to a few people with whom she had connections that rivaled the closest connections anyone can have to anyone.    Conventional obituary practice does list chosen family -- but only if that chosen family member is a spouse or, maybe, unmarried partner.  (How else but chosen family to describe the person you choose to marry?)  Other than that it is strictly the blood/legal family members that make up legal next of kin -- the people who inherit if a person dies without a will: parents, children, siblings.

Lauren tried to explain this to the Post's obituary writer.  He never did get it. Lauren could not get him to include  the "extensive chosen family" she had listed. So, for the record, here are the names of Gail's family members that Lauren knew were important enough to include: Cheryl Hurwitz (Silver Spring), Jenny Stelloh (Takoma Park), Chris Nichols and Dianne Russell (Mt. Rainier), and nieces Eliana Hurwitz and Kaisa and Lydia Nichols-Russell.  My sincerest condolences to all of them on their loss.

In researching to write this blog post, I discovered that the obituary form provided by the Washington Post calls for names of present and former "spouses," then asks for the names and residences of "survivors," considered "spouses, children, siblings, and parents."  It also asks for the number of grandchildren.  Since the Post is willing to include a partner, I find it curious and troubling that the form it provides does not say that.  Apparently, you have to be a bit of an envelope-pusher to get the Post to do what it has been willing to do for the last two decades.  In other words, if you are a surviving same-sex partner there is no place on the form to indicate that so it can be listed.  You have to affirmatively ask to be listed, something not every surviving partner will know is possible.

We hear it said often that obituaries are news stories.  The information in them must meet the journalistic criteria for accuracy.  But a legalistic definition of "survivors" is not an accurate definition of either those who have suffered the greatest loss or those who compose the web of people with whom the deceased lived her life.

The Post obituary writer told Lauren he didn't understand what chosen family meant.  She told him that in a few years he would.  I hope she's right.  I have to wonder, however, if once again the visibility of the struggle for same-sex marriage actually deters people from defining family the way it is lived by so many people.  When obituaries do not include same-sex partners it could look to some like a problem to be solved by allowing same-sex couples to marry.  Like so many policies I write about in these pages, however,  the problem is an incomplete, inaccurate definition of family.  I don't know what it will take to get the Washington Post obituary writers to see it thay way.

A memorial service to honor Gail Messier's life will be held in March.  Her chosen family will be there.  In fact it was their convenience that determined the date, because they are her primary mourners and they need each other to get through this difficult time.  Come to think of it, the Post should send a reporter.  It might help the paper learn something about family that is so clearly lacking in its obituary criteria.


BCAQMD said...

Hi, I really love your blog. I am contacting you because my mom has written a book titled Never Marry a Momma's Boy: and 62 other men to avoid like the plague and I am helping her get the word out about her new book. You can guess that this book is about types of men that women should steer clear of at all costs. It is a funny and smart read. If you would be interested, by mom would be thrilled to write a guest blog on your site. Please feel free to contact her at Thank you for your time!

LilySea said...

"once again the visibility of the struggle for same-sex marriage actually deters people from defining family the way it is lived by so many people"

THIS. I just got into a big argument with some people demanding the AP call same-sex married partners "husbands" and "wives" and that is NOT what my (once extra-legally, once legally in Canada) married partner is to me. Using those terms would marginalize families like ours yet further.
I said it before but I'll say it again: queers have been doing family better for a long time. They ought to be asking US how to do it, we shouldn't be begging them to let us squeeze into boxes that don't fit us.
And boy am I grateful that the paper in the city where my father died did not have an obituary form, but allowed me to write it myself!

Nancy Polikoff said...

Thank you for your comment. Agreed. What newspaper allowed you to write the obituary? I know that newspapers let others write death notices, but I thought obituaries were controlled by the newspaper staff.