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October 30, 2009 1:28 PM   Subscribe

What happens if somebody lies in an obituary?

I was reading up on Poe's death recently; Griswold's "obituary"/poison pen letter about the man following his death was intriguing, and I've been wondering what happens if somebody crafts an obituary that contains deliberate falsehoods, or provides the newspaper/funeral home with facts that aren't necessarily true. I'm not talking about "news obituaries," as those are obviously the work of paid newspaper staff and fall firmly under its wing. I'm wondering about the "classifieds obituaries."

This is partly legal curiosity, and partly my own desire to have an obituary that contains sentences like "in 1987, wrestled George 'the Animal' Steele at WrestleMania III in his masked identity as Doctor Resisto."

Are standard-grade obituaries fact-checked or even reviewed for ridiculous claims, or are they (in terms of the paid-per-inch details) "free space" that an author can fill as she chooses?

Who is legally responsible if an obituary contains false or even defamatory information?
posted by Shepherd to Law & Government (10 answers total)
In my understand, it is not possible to defame the dead because they can not suffer any damages; they're dead so damaging their reputation isn't going to hurt them, monetarily. As such, I do not believe an action for defamation is even legally possible (in the US) if the statement was made about someone who was dead at the time.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:33 PM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: In many newspapers these days obituaries are paid space (what you call "classified obituaries"), typically placed by the funeral home. Funeral directors tend to follow a template and get info from next of kin. Since the cost is passed through to the family, most of them will put in anything they want to say, including crazy stuff left behind in the departed's last wishes. If it's obviously bogus, the fun. director will probably discourage it, and if it's clearly defamatory, they won't comply. The information is the collective responsibility of the people placing it, typically the family and fun. director. Nobody at newspapers fact-checks this stuff, although with some luck somebody might raise a flag if something is clearly in bad taste or libelous. Nobody is legally liable if the information is just inaccurate or incomplete. But if it's defamatory, the person who is libeled would probably sue everyone concerned, from the family to the newspaper. This has to be a living person, since legally you can't libel the dead.
posted by beagle at 1:41 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A point about defamation - while the person who's dead won't be harmed, their relatives and friends and people inheriting parts of their estate would have standing to sue as well, especially if the deceased had some sort of ongoing stream of income (royalties from book sales, e.g.) that could be affected by a decrease in reputation.

I looked through the New York Times Obituary Terms of Use and my understanding is that you agree upon submission of an obituary not to post anything blatantly false or defamatory. They pretty extensively disclaim all responsibility and possible damages that arise from such content and I imagine they'd just withdraw your ad if it was pointed out to them (and maybe pass along your contact info if someone wants to sue you).

And by "you", I mean "whomever posts the obit".
posted by Phire at 1:45 PM on October 30, 2009

Here's one example of lying in a paid obit. It's still online too.
posted by Xalf at 2:36 PM on October 30, 2009

There was a bit of a scandal a couple of years ago when someone's obituary repeated a false claim he had made about writing a popular song, which had some negative impact on the actual songwriter.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:39 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In high school, I worked as an obituary clerk for my local newspaper. We followed a pretty strict template for the regular obituary section, but we also offered paid obituary space for people who wanted to get overly flowery or religious with their wording or include multi-paragraph life stories.

For the paid obituaries, the space you've paid for is yours to do with as you wish. I'm not sure how defamatory things would be handled (e.g. if someone wanted to print "he was an asshole and a raging alcoholic who never gave his family the time of day) but if someone wanted to be whimsical or silly (e.g. the OP's wrestling reference) they're free to do so.

If an alert reader spotted it and knew it wasn't true, they'd be free to write a letter to the editor saying "Shepherd did NOT wrestle George 'the Animal' Steele at WrestleMania III in his masked identity as Doctor Resisto!" but I doubt the newspaper editors would pursue it.
posted by amyms at 2:41 PM on October 30, 2009

A lot of these answers presume you are wronging another person. What if you wanted to say:

Matthew Shepherd, a well-known bee-hypnotist/wrestler, died on Thursday. He used his art in pro-am wrestling matches in the Southwest from 1996-2000, letting his honey bee minions sting his opponents before dropping his signature move, the Bees Knees. Shepherd is survived by a wife, a son, and three hives.
posted by yeti at 2:53 PM on October 30, 2009

I'd bet the farm that often these are the result of the deceased's "big fish stories" during life. Grandpa tells grandson he was in the Association for a while, and then when it is time to write the obituary, the grandson has no reason not to say it.

Or, in other words, the same rules apply as anything else in the newspaper: it only matters if someone is damaged.
posted by gjc at 4:13 PM on October 30, 2009

A couple of months ago, I was reading the obits and came across one that claimed the deceased was one of the first Navy SEALS, took down the flag at the Iranian Embassy in Iraq, and received the Medal of Honor during the Gulf War in the 1991. This immediately smelled fishy to me because, as a historian who has spent quite a bit of time reading military history, I knew that the Medal of Honor was not awarded to anyone during the Gulf War. It also didn't help that the obit was shoddily written.

Someone must have pointed this out to the editor as the newspaper immediately issued a correction noting that no one received the Medal of Honor during the Gulf War.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 4:54 PM on October 30, 2009

Sorry I'm a week late to this...

Part of my job is paginating obits. I don't actually input them, but I interact with the obit department quite a bit, and for a while I also proofread the obits. We had certain things we were told to look out for. There are certain things that don't fly in our paper. For example, we once had an obit that said "The 2004 presidential election was too much for him to take and he finally gave up his battle with cancer," at least something very close to that. The newsroom got a ton of angry calls from conservatives about this, and we had to put the kibosh on any political statements. One obit talked about a guy's real estate investments, and they called the deceased a slumlord, which we presumed was a joke, but that part nevertheless was deleted. Basically, derogatory information gets killed out. But, other than those two things, we take what's given and we print it. We do, however, verify each death with the funeral home, as you could imagine the amount of problems a fake obit can cause if it were to be published.

One thing our paper does, though, is run the occasional feature story on someone who was in the obits if it looks interesting. So info that got into an obit may suddenly end up getting fact checked by a real reporter after the fact. Remember that before you make your obit a little too interesting.
posted by azpenguin at 11:27 PM on November 5, 2009

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