From grieving family members to facts that cannot be easily checked and suppressing scandalous news, writing obituaries can be a challenge.

 By Sylvia Stead, public editor of 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 ofGreat 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.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.