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11/18/2010

Dear Abby debate over ex-spouses as survivors

November 18, 2010 | 11:59 am

Today’s “Dear Abby” explores a hot-button issue for families as well as obit writers -- whether former spouses of the deceased should be listed as survivors.

One letter writer (a former copy editor, naturally) makes a point that many callers to the news obituary department fail to understand: “A death notice is a paid announcement. … An obituary is an objective news story written by a bylined reporter.”

The subtext: If you want to control the contents of the obituary, place a death notice. (And no, you can’t read my story before it is printed “to make sure I get everything right.” If I had a nickel for every time I said, “You’ll just have to trust me, I do this for a living,” I’d be able to throw one heck of a Dia de los Muertos celebration.)

But back to the battle over the exes: Readers tweaked dear Abigail Van Buren for concluding that ex-spouses are “usually not mentioned in the obituary.” They argued that obituaries are “historical documents” and that it’s important to mention a former wife, for instance, when she was the mother of the children.

One letter writer says that she and her ex have agreed that any obituary concerning either of them will read: “Also survived by the mother/father of his/her children.”

Another writer suggests “It is the right of the surviving family to decide the contents of the obituary.” (See “subtext,” above.)

In our department, we don’t have an official policy regarding mentioning former spouses in the body of the story. Often, exes are not listed by name unless the couple had children together, and even then we might just make it clear that the offspring were from “a first marriage.” It really is decided case by case. Our only obligation is to tell the tale of the subject of our story.

Regardless, a former spouse is never listed as a survivor in a Times news obituary.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

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