March 15, 2010 in Features

Obituary etiquette asks it be tasteful

Judith Martin, United Media
 

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How do you feel about the use in an obituary of a photo of the deceased when he/she was much younger than at the age at which he/she had died?

I have the typical face of a woman my age, 78 – wrinkled, sagging skin and thin, graying hair. A photo of me at 26 shows a very attractive, vibrant young woman, and this is how I would like my friends to remember me. (And it would send a message to my much younger friends: No matter how beautiful or handsome you are now, you, too, will one day be old, wrinkled and gray if you live long enough.)

I have reached the age where reading the obituary columns in the paper every day has become a habit. In the part of the country where I now live, the use of a younger photo is about 50 percent.

How do you feel about disclosing the cause of death in an obituary? I see this in very few write-ups, yet, when you hear that someone has died, the first thing everyone wants to know is what caused their death.

I think that the disclosure could be a wake-up call for a lot of people, for instance, to learn that the heavy smoker died of lung cancer, that the heart patient who did not watch his weight died of a heart attack, etc. By this, I don’t mean that you mention the person was a heavy smoker, of course! – only that the cause of death was lung cancer. (If you knew him, you already know that he was a heavy smoker.)

I will do my very best to stay alive until you have time to answer this, only because I want to know your opinion – good etiquette or not, I intend to have my young photo used and the cause of death disclosed in my obituary!

GENTLE READER: Newspapers and magazines have their own policies about photographs and mentioning causes of death, with which you cannot argue. Especially when you are dead.

For a funeral program or Web site posting, you can decide what you like – Miss Manners is not inclined to condemn last wishes – and even use more than one picture.

Thankfully, however, you are still alive, so she has time to address the taste aspects. Her motive is not to give you a glamorous death but a brighter outlook on life.

The friends who mourn you will be interested in how you looked when young, but unless they knew you then, they are not likely to roll back 52 years when they remember you. If you are dear to them, it will be as they knew you. And you don’t want them to skip reading the obituary because they don’t recognize the picture.

Miss Manners worries about your attitude toward those younger friends. Yes, it is true that everyone alive grows older and eventually dies, and also that the young, although they know this, do not believe it will happen to them personally. Some people specialize in reminding them, whether to urge them to prepare for Judgment Day or to enjoy life while they can.

Which do you hope to do posthumously? Please reassure Miss Manners that your objective is not to dampen the spirits of your pretty, young friends.

As for the cause of death, yes, we all find that interesting, and many notices do include that. But your examples also show an edge, a satisfaction that the death seems to be the dead person’s fault.

It is natural for those still alive to think that since they don’t smoke, or are not overweight, it will not happen to them. Miss Manners does not want to disillusion anyone on that point, which may lead to good behavior.

But it is another version of the unkind attitude you resent in the young in regard to the old. And Miss Manners believes that those who are not always measuring themselves against others, one way or the other, lead happier lives.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I just finished watching “Gone with the Wind,” and noticed that Clark Gable looked dashing in his cape, or cloak, or whatever it should be called.

Is a gentleman permitted to wear such things anymore? If so (and I do hope the answer is yes), then when?

GENTLE READER: When you are wearing evening clothes. Or when the lady who accompanies you is wearing the drawing room curtains.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at MissManners@ unitedmedia.com, or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10016.

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