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public editor

Sylvia Stead is The Globe and Mail’s Public Editor.The Globe and Mail

Of all the pages in a newspaper, the obituary page is the most likely to be kept, framed and shared. To have an obituary in The Globe is a tribute to those who have lived notable lives, and the writers and editors hate to see a mistake mar that honour.

And yet, despite great care, there are errors. In the past year, out of 325 errors of all types in the paper and online, nine were in obituaries. Some were minor, such as an incorrect year for a certain prize won. Others are more personal and regrettable, such as an incorrect family connection or whether someone was indeed the first to accomplish a great deed.

Some of these facts cannot be checked and are known only to family members, and this is where troubles arise. Grieving family members might not know what university the person attended 50 years ago, or for which years, or even the names of grandchildren's spouses. They may be overwrought with emotion, or the family history may have been somewhat exaggerated over the years. In one recent correction, a family member was sure that the relative had been married to the daughter of a famous man. But a sharp-eyed reader knew she was the famous man's niece and let us know.

Sandra Martin, The Globe's former obituaries writer, is also the author of Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada Through the Art of the Obit. She says family members "may want to suppress some facts (previous wives, scandals) or events, and emphasize others. That's why before picking up the phone I always go to biographical references – Who's Who, encyclopedias, even Wikipedia – although I always check the sources listed in the footnotes. At least then you have a general idea of the person you are writing about, so you know where to begin."

Her advice to readers is that while not everyone gets a newspaper or online obituary, most will have a death notice – and the basic facts should be written long before they are needed. "File it with your will and other important end-of-life papers. Most important, tell your loved ones where to find them. That way they will have accurate details about your life for the funeral if an obituary writer calls."

Dates and ages can be fudged over the years. Not everyone is honest about their age. The other issue with families is that one child or sibling will remember certain facts about their loved one while another one has quite a different recollection. When there is no formal record, those disputes are difficult to resolve. Ms. Martin said you need to interview as many family members as possible. She adds that, since you are usually dealing with the children of the deceased, you need to watch out for sibling rivalry. One told her, "Of course I was my father's favourite." Says Ms. Martin, "I decided to do her a favour and leave the quote out of my obituary. Besides, I couldn't check it for accuracy as her father, being deceased, wasn't available for comment."

I hear from many regular readers of the page who are extremely knowledgeable about either the person, or the person's profession, and rightly point out errors. When writing about a technical subject he or she doesn't understand, a reporter needs to go beyond profile-writing and call the relevant experts.

"Obituaries are all about detail and context, both of which are minefields when you are trying to encapsulate an entire life in a few hundred words," says Ms. Martin. "Your subject may be a rocket scientist, a subject about which you know little, but the obituary will probably be read by all the other rocket scientists and they will spot errors light years away. That adds to the pressure."

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