Connections: Vox Populi

The Star takes its obituary role seriously

For a long time (let’s be honest, for about half a century), I’ve spent a good part of the working week immersed in letters and obituaries — the two elements of a newspaper that reflect readers’ voices and readers’ lives. Letters and obituaries have been part of my newspapering life since I was a cub reporter. An obituary was the first assignment in an evening journalism course I took at Columbia in anticipation of joining the Star family: We were given a factual rundown of a fictional dead person and told to take it from there. 

After joining The Star as a newbie, I soon overcame my initial fear of asking questions about a recently departed person, and discovered that almost inevitably whoever was on the other end of the phone wanted to talk about their friend or family member — to, as it is said, celebrate their life. I don’t need to tell you that The Star takes its obituary role seriously and believes that taking time and care to report the details of someone’s life is a benefit to our community.  

It has been some 60 years or so since we announced that every letter to the editor would be published in The Star unless it was obscene or libelous. This was unheard of at the time, and is still unique, I believe. The volume of correspondence has grown and grown, filling several pages during elections and other contentious times, and eating up many, many editing hours, as we proofread for typos and sometimes even have to transcribe handwritten notes. From time to time, readers have lashed out at us for this policy, angry about our giving space to ideas they find hatefully racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted. We argue that the public is better served by knowing what attitudes are lurking out there. More than anything else in our pages, the letters, and their sheer number, prove that The Star is the voice of the community. It’s a mission we are proud of, and we like to think conciliation — or at least a modicum of mutual understanding — between opposing forces can result. 

Now, you might think that editing a letter to the editor would be an appropriate task for an intern, but we have always made it a responsibility of those at the top of the masthead. These days, reading the letters is usually the first thing I do on Monday mornings, and in late afternoon I check back to see if any more have come in. If I’m not able to do this, the editor in chief will.

For reasons that are lost to history, the obituaries are the last items on The Star’s weekly production schedule. Perhaps we decided to leave them to last because they could be challenging or sad. Perhaps we wanted to be sure we were able to publish every possible one. We once aimed to produce an obituary for every single person who died within our circulation area, but the population has far outpaced that expectation now. We have never had a proper deadline for obituaries; news of a death and a subsequent story about a life warrants attention even when delayed.

On a lighter note, I’ve sometimes joked about changing The Star’s “Shines for All” motto to indicate how seriously we take obituaries: The Star “Eulogizes All”? The Star “Remembers All”? Perhaps we should run a contest for a new motto. The winner would be promised .  .  . a mention in their future obituary.