Life, Death and Everything in Between

Long ago and far away newspapers were delivered by boys and girls – mostly boys – by bicycle or on foot after school to nearly every north state home and business.

In those days, nearly everyone – rich and poor, old and young alike – read newspapers. This was back before cable television, when, here in our region, there were basically three functioning channels, helped along by a rabbit-ear antenna on top of the TV: network channels 7 and 12, and public television channel 9.

This was long before cell phones, or even answering machines. Most homes had one dial-telephone shared by an entire family, and it was possible to leave one’s phone home alone all day while everyone went to work or school. Away from home, there were pay phones if you absolutely had to use a phone. At home, if the phone rang while people were away, the phone just rang and rang, and like that proverbial lone tree falling unobserved in the forest, nobody was the wiser.

Times were different then in so many other ways. For example, for the life of me I cannot now fathom the concept of youngsters being allowed to deliver newspapers alone for miles. The thought terrifies me.

And, practically speaking, how did newspaper delivery boys and girls hold down that newspaper job and still find time for homework, chores and school activities?

Once upon a time, even kids read newspapers.

But I digress. I was talking about newspapers.

As a kid, I loved to read everything from cereal boxes and “Little House on the Prairie” series to “Nancy Drew” mysteries and comic books. So I happily transitioned as an adolescent to reading newspapers nearly cover to cover. I remember feeling disappointed when I reached the back page, because that meant I was finished, and I’d have to wait until tomorrow for the next newspaper. Sometimes, If I were really bored, I’d even scan the sports section, and skim the hard news, but I was most interested in feature stories, Ann Landers, horoscopes, the food section, classifieds, comics, Pet of the Week, entertainment, births and divorces, and the “society page” with weddings and engagements, adorned with photos of love-struck couples.

I failed to mention one particularly special section, and that’s because it feels morbid to admit that obituaries were among my favorite parts of the newspaper. Even as a teenager, I read all the obituaries, despite the fact that I rarely recognized any names, because I hadn’t yet reached that stark stage of life when death preys on peers. What I liked about obituaries was I could read between the lines to imagine what those departed people’s lives were like before death cut things short. Those obituaries were understated, brief, technically well-written, and followed a basic format: Name, age, city, death date/birth date/birth place, employment, education, clubs, survivors and services. No fluff. No frills. Just facts.

As a teenage newspaper consumer, I vividly recall when reading obituaries that if the age of the departed was anything higher than 40, that sounded about right to me. No tragedy here. They were so old!

Years later, when I became a journalist and spent a decade working for the same newspaper I’d grown up reading, I learned that the obituaries were written by the editorial staff, and meticulous care was given to accuracy. The copy desk was a stickler for making sure the obituaries were done correctly, partly out of a sense of journalistic perfectionism, but also because few things can cause greater heartburn in a newsroom than calls about botched obituaries. From zero to 60, grief-stricken folks can go from really sad to raging mad.

In those days, death notices arrived via fax to the editorial secretary’s desk from local mortuaries, and then the information was copied and typed by hand. Anyone who lived and died within the newspaper’s circulation range could have an obituary written by the editorial staff, often interns, under great scrutiny by their editors.

It didn’t matter if a departed’s family lived in a mansion or didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Everyone got an obituary. No charge.

Times changed. The local newspaper went from being delivered in the afternoons to being delivered in the early mornings, this time, by adult contract drivers, not kids. The number of reporters and photographers plummeted to where it is now, a skeleton crew of multi-tasking, multi-media professionals who you could count on barely two hands. God bless them every one, two, three ….

No segue, but have I told you lately how glad I am to not work for a corporate newspaper in 2018? So glad.

The days of that vibrant horse-shoe-shaped copy desk in the newsroom’s center, staffed by a team of top-notch copy editors? Long gone, replaced by a “universal” desk located somewhere far away from the north state, where well-meaning out-of-state copy editors have no clue that here in Shasta County, “Roaring Gulch” is a fictitious place only trotted out during Rodeo Week, and in the summer of 2018, it’s Carr, not Car.

Buyouts were offered to senior staff, most of whom wisely took them and split. The majority of the art department was outsourced to Lord knows where. Editorial librarians and/or editorial secretaries were deemed expendable. And the glory days of a robust editorial board, and a full-time onsite publisher and editor went the way of telephone booths and carbon paper.

Toward the end of my newspaper career the advertising side of the paper assumed control of the obituaries. Suddenly, the obituaries were no longer written by journalists, but by grieving lay people, often ill-equipped to write those last precious words about their loved ones. Typos, misspellings and embarrassing mistakes galore were published in ink, then lovingly clipped with scissors and saved in scrapbooks and family Bibles, where, years from now, stunned descendants will surely read those poorly written tributes and wonder what the hell.

Worse yet, families now had to pay dearly to have even substandard obituaries published. Averages of about $1 a word were not uncommon. In fact, some obituaries could reach into the $1,000 range, depending upon the fullness of a departed person’s life, or the number of survivors. For what it’s worth, using that formula, if this column were an obituary, it would set a family back about $1,500.

That’s why, for budget’s sake, when it comes time to pay for a newspaper obituary, in the end, having a boring grandpa isn’t such a bad thing after all.

In all seriousness, I remember a young couple whose baby died, and they had to ask their parents for money to pay for their child’s obituary. The bad news? Your baby dies. The other bad news? You can’t afford its obituary.

In a way, as disturbing as I found those newspaper-obituary changes, they eventually proved irrelevant. Newspaper circulation numbers crashed so low that an alarming phenomena occurred: People were dying, but there weren’t enough people reading the obituaries for the public at large to learn about deaths in time to attend services or express condolences. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of someone’s passing long after the funeral is over.

Obviously, I’m not referring to inner-circle deaths, but acquaintances, former colleagues and classmates, respected community leaders, favorite teachers, dear old neighbors; all people whose passing I would have liked to have acknowledged; had I only known.

Of course, those are the ones I know about. How can we know … if we don’t know?

My heart aches at the thought of the added dose of sadness families feel when funerals are sparsely attended, and pews are empty, not because the departed person wasn’t valued, but because people who might have attended didn’t learn the sad news until it was too late.

Good news

Doni felt compelled to have a photo here, but this was the only thing she could come up with.

Truly, this column does have a point.

This week, I’m proud to announce that aNewsCafe.com has started publishing death notices, thanks to a collaboration with Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapels. (And thanks to Joe Domke, for working his technical magic.)

Luckily for us, the days of faxed death notices and tediously typed information are over. Here in the 21st century, death notices are sent electronically and will be uploaded automatically.

If you haven’t discovered the new death notices section yet, you’ll find it between the Convo Cafe and the general comments box, two of our most-read sections. It’s still a work in progress, so stay tuned. Because the death notice box has a limited capacity, click on See More Death Notices for the rest. I hope you’ll get in the habit of checking that section daily. You can bet I will.

Also, I’m pleased to share the awesome news that we are offering an obituary-writing service; work done by professional writers, published here on aNewsCafe.com. We have created a link for loved ones to guide them through the process of providing information to help us create an obituary, complete with photos. This is voluntary, unrelated to the death notices, which, for now, are provided by Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapels.

There is no greater honor nor greater pressure than to write an obituary. It’s a colossal responsibility to summarize a person’s entire life with mere words. For that reason, it’s also one of my favorite kinds of writing, because to write an obituary means that someone has entrusted me with the weighty task to create a permanent record that reports what was noteworthy about their loved one; to share the rare opportunity to bear witness that this special individual was here on this planet, and he or she left an indelible, memorable mark.

Here at aNewsCafe.com, we have always published obituaries, usually about people close to our online family of readers and/or contributors. Sometimes they’re written by us. Sometimes they’re written and submitted by families and friends of the departed.

As much as I wish I could offer this service at no cost, we will charge a nominal flat fee so we can compensate our staff members who write the obituaries. Our first official obituary writer is Bethany Chamberlain, and yes, she’s my sister; a talented, award-winning writer. Truth be told, she can write circles around me.

I know the topic of death can sound depressing, but I feel absolutely elated to offer death notices and obituaries on aNewsCafe.com. At last, we are able to honor those who’ve lived and died among us by recognizing and remembering them. But before we can do that, we have to be informed that they’ve passed.

On a less somber note, watch for upcoming new features on aNewsCafe.com that deal with happier aspects of life, such as births, weddings, engagements, and more.

From the beginning to the end — and everything in between — we’ll do our best to cover it all.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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