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Scathing Obituary Reflects Changes To American Death Announcements

Jun 8, 2018

The internet is talking this week about the death of 80-year-old Kathleen Dehmlow and her obituary in the Redwood Falls Minnesota Gazette, which was written and paid for by the woman’s own children.

In just 100 words, this tribute turned from announcement to anger, as it revealed a 60-year-old infidelity, and adult children who believe “the world is a better place without her.”

This viral sensation – thanks to Twitter – highlights how much has changed from the days when newspapers had obituary writers who focused on local deaths of note. Instead, announcements are part of a big business, where newspapers and funeral homes use a third-party company to publish an obituary online and in the pages of a local newspaper.

The behemoth is Legacy.com, which CNET reports publishes announcements for three of out of every four Americans who die. The site gets 20 million unique visitors a month.

Reaction to this tweet about an 80-year-old woman's obituary swept quickly across the internet and media this week.
Credit Twitter account of @RandBallsStu

While the obituary for Mrs. Dehmlow slipped through and her children say they would do it again, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute said people usually can’t write whatever they want.

“If that were the case, you could play a really tasteless joke on your friend or your enemy. Newspapers have always had standards for what could be included and newspapers would verify information with a funeral home to make sure a person was really dead, and that the information was relatively accurate,” she said. “However, as the funeral business was also disrupted (like newspapers), more people are just going straight to Legacy.com to create their obituaries.”

Since it was published earlier this week, the Minnesota newspaper disconnected the link to Mrs. Dehmlow’s obituary, and Legacy.com announced it is revising its standards.

McBride said this one angry tribute is more the exception than the norm. Overall, she says changes to obituaries are good.

“You frequently see obituaries going viral because they are so clever and well-written and specific to the person. That wasn’t possible or encouraged before Legacy,” she said. “Like most internet disruptions, this one has widened the boundaries of what’s acceptable.”

Writing a person’s obituary, McBride said, is a privilege. Strike a tone that is halfway between the way your loved one wanted to be remembered and the way the people who loves that person remembers him or her, she said.

“You also might want to take some advice from your grandma. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”