Who rates an obituary in the Chicago Tribune?

For an obit in the New York Times, one must enjoy proximity to power, fame, wealth, or the newspaper’s office. To garner a handsome write-up in a local newspaper, one need only have lived in the community. The Trib falls somewhere in between.

Obituaries are a combination news and service feature. They supply important information while providing a last public word on a human life. Strangers scan them, families save them. I recently analyzed every obituary to appear in the paper from mid-December 1993 to mid-June 1994. The odds of copping one appear best for Roman Catholic businessmen who live on the north side or in the northern suburbs.

A total of 17,562 death notices (some of which ran on more than one day) appeared in the Trib in those six months, along with 1,409 obituaries. Of those obits, 911 were small “regular obits,” the remaining 498 were the larger, headlined “hed bits.” When it came to the small ones, the split of memorialized men to women was 67 percent to 33 percent. Less than 20 percent of the hed obits went to women: 96 women rated them versus 402 men.

Certain occupational categories seemed to rate automatic inclusion: journalists and others involved in publishing of all kinds were extremely well represented. Performers, nuns, and Tribune employees and their dependents almost always get obituaries. And if you can survive to 100, you’re virtually guaranteed inclusion.

Unsurprisingly in the second-largest archdiocese in the world, Roman Catholic led the entries in specified religions. Protestants took second place, followed closely by Jews, who had 9 percent of the large obits and 12 percent of the small ones. The biggest category was “unspecified”: 58 percent of hed obits and 35 percent of regular obits did not give any religious affiliation.

Also frequently missing–from 89 percent of squiblets and 58 percent of biggies–was the cause of death. Cancer and heart problems were the leaders where a cause was given, most frequently in obits supplied by the wire services. AIDS was given as a cause in 3.2 percent of hed obits, but only 0.22 percent of small ones.

The most obituaries carried on any given day was 14, counting both categories; the minimum was three. Sunday is not a good day on which to aspire to a headlined obit with a photograph. That paper carries a larger than usual number of death notices, along with reruns of the most notable deaths of the previous week. There are two facing pages for obituaries and death notices on six days of the week, located at the back of the Chicagoland section; Saturday’s paper assigns them only one.

In addition to obituaries and death notices–the paid announcements that seem to refer invariably to the dearly departed as the beloved spouse, loving parent, and fond grandparent of the survivors–the obit pages carry ads for undertakers and graveyards as well as memorials (“In our hearts your memory is kept of one we loved and will never forget”) and the Almanac feature (“On July 6, 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed in England for treason”). Most irritatingly for those of us who believe that as many of our late citizens as possible should receive some recognition, the obit pages frequently include leftover city and suburban news stories: “Showers, raffle tickets are ways 1 firm tries to alter commuting.”

Having accumulated this wad of statistics (along with glazed eyes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a tendency to twitch whenever confronted with the smirking visage of Lloyd Mandel of Levayah Funerals), I decided it was time to get them interpreted. Kenan Heise, author, poet, and 31-year employee of the Tribune Company, has been in charge of obituaries at the Trib since 1982, and many of the statistics are a direct result of his policies.

“When I got the job, I was horrified,” says Heise, a friendly one-time seminarian who obviously cares about his work. “I said, ‘I don’t read them–why would I want to write them?’ But I said I would do it if they would let me make some changes in the way the obituaries were written.

“I wanted to focus on people’s lives. At the time obituaries in the Tribune were very factual. The headline always said that so-and-so had died–well, we already know that. I had to focus on something else about the individual, I had to find a different verb to use in the first paragraph.” Heise prevailed in a struggle with the copy editors, and a new style of hed obits was born.

Heise doesn’t much care about clubs, whether Eastern Star or Unitarian, and he’s not particularly interested in the cause of death, though he does consider AIDS relevant–just in the life being considered. “My interest is to make it as human as possible,” he says. He eschews “laundry lists of titles and positions” and looks for items of interest–a significant case argued by a lawyer, a product pioneered by a businessman, a story broken by a reporter. He started mentioning gay partners his first year on the job, before the Tribune’s policies allowed it, listing them as “Longtime Friends.” The policy was changed in the late 80s, and he can now do it officially.

He also says he goes to considerable lengths to balance the obituaries for gender and ethnicity, a constant struggle, as he’s the first to state. Actually, the Trib’s statistics on women seem a lot less dismal when compared to those of other papers. On a recent weekday the New York Times ran ten male obits and one female; it often has no women at all. The primary problem is that women dying at advanced ages today did not, as a rule, have opportunities for careers in their youth, and a life spent as a wife and mother is hard to quantify in an interesting paragraph or two.

Another problem is a curious devaluation of women’s worth even by the people and institutions who know them best. Heise gets most of his information from families, friends, and firms–one reason lawyers and businesspeople get heavy coverage. Children (daughters more often than sons) are more apt to call in about dad than mom, wives are more prone to report husbands than vice versa, and companies are much more likely to write up a male employee than a female. “The universities could do a lot better,” says Heise. “Their proportion [of information sent in] is ten-to-one male to female. Law firms very, very rarely send us obituaries of women. The archdiocese sends women only when they’re in executive positions, not nuns.” Heise likes to run obits for nuns: “I don’t think they get any recognition in life.”

He also likes to run obituaries for centenarians, most of whom are women, and for Tribune employees. “People work at the Tribune for 30, 40 years, cleaning or operating the presses, and they never get any recognition. I go out of my way to do those.” He also goes out of his way to include blacks, Latinos, and Arab Americans, all of whom are underrepresented in the obit pages. “We go fishing for those. My hope is that people will see them and then be more likely to send information to us.”

Undertakers are the largest source of obituary information, which explains the high proportion of Jews who get write-ups. “The Jewish funeral homes are very aggressive. They make a major effort to get [the information] in. Their funerals are usually very fast. They’ve learned we’re not going to pick them up from the death notices in time, so they alert us.”

Heise gets other names by going through the death notices submitted, reading other papers, and talking to reporters. He tends not to pick up on murders and accidents that have been covered in the news sections, particularly when memorial-service information has been included.

Heise’s advice for those who want someone to get an obit is to send him a fax (222-3143) with the pertinent information. “Put interesting material in it. Read a couple of obituaries and focus on how we put them together before sending it in.” He might call with follow-up questions.

The regular obits are still written according to a predictable, cut-and-dried formula that conveys little, which doesn’t particularly please Heise. Are they worth running? Heise says he sometimes wonders. “Except when I talk to a family, and they’re so very, very pleased that it ran.”

Heise’s efforts are to be applauded, but his bosses could find some better way to arrange the obit pages. For starters, they ought to be reserved for obituaries, death notices, and related items–not for articles about suburban politics and the latest in the Willie Lloyd saga. Move the Almanac feature (surely there’s room in the want ads, next to “Pluggers,” for instance) and keep every inch of the pages for relevant material. If space is available there should be more obits.

The Trib probably can’t emulate the Kansas City Star’s policy of providing free obituaries for all. Its region is too big, and Tribune Company executives would never relinquish the income from death notices. But they would do everyone a service if they’d alphabetize the list of the dead.

An obituary is a great deal more than a space filler. It’s an affirmation that a given individual affected others and had worth. It’s the last (sometimes the first) community notice most of us will ever have. The Tribune should actively seek ways to offer that opportunity to as many people as possible, even if it means that an occasional story about teen curfews in Bensenville doesn’t run.

Michael Miner is on vacation this week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.