Obits: A lasting tribute

`One of most important things we do'


By Shawn M. Starkey
Herald Staff Writer

When Anne Goda tells people what she does for a living, some find it morbid.

But as staff obituary writer for The Herald since 1974, she sees her job as very important.

``In community journalism, the writing of obits is one of the most important things we do,'' Herald Editor James A. Raykie Jr. said.

That's especially true in communities our size, where so many people are related or know each other, he said, noting relatives see obituaries as a lasting tribute to the deceased.

``They clip it. They save it. They laminate it. They mail it to friends,'' Raykie said.

The importance really hit home when The Herald moved its front-page death record to the back page in a 1988 redesign.

Raykie acknowledges that move was a mistake and said it was one of the most frequent complaints he got from readers.

So March 31, as part of another redesign, the death record returned to page one.

Raykie said he's come to realize readers see the front-page location as more than just a convenience. ``It's the last front-page tribute that you can pay someone,'' he said.

In 1995, The Herald published about 2,000 obituaries. With an average obit running 7 inches long, that's about 109 pages.

Mrs. Goda regularly deals with 65 funeral homes in five counties. An average day sees her writing nine obituaries.

It may not sound like a lot. But that's comparable to writing three or four news stories on deadline each morning _ something reporters rarely have to do.

Then come the days when the number of obituaries reaches 20 or more, with other reporters and newsroom assistants being drafted into obit duty.

Most staffers won't soon forget the day the editors had to shrink the size of the text to fit all the obituaries on the page.

It's even joked that Mrs. Goda is the most powerful person in the newsroom, because she can pull a paid advertisement to make room for obituaries.

Whether it's Mrs. Goda, Raykie or local funeral directors talking, all agree accuracy is top priority in obituaries.

Raykie pointed to something Wally Wachter, retired Herald managing editor, told him early in his career _ ``In newspapers the size of The Herald, you don't want to mess up anyone's birth, death, engagement or wedding announcement.''

Raykie explained that if the newspaper makes a mistake on a parent's obituary or a child's engagement, that reader will never forgive it.

What that means for Mrs. Goda is constantly checking the facts for accuracy and hoping that if something does slip by her, a copy editor will catch it.

J. Bradley McGonigle III of J. Bradley McGonigle Funeral Home Inc. in Sharon said even when a newspaper runs an addition or correction, the family still only has the clipping of the original incorrect obituary to save.

McGonigle places the responsibility on himself as a funeral director to provide the obituary information in the correct format, which generally follows a person's life in chronological order from birth to death.

H. Lee Cunningham of Cunningham Funeral Home Inc. in Grove City said obituaries are part of a permanent record in most families. ``I believe the accuracy and the character of the obituary itself is most important to reflect that person's life,'' he said.

Larry Madasz of Madasz Funeral Home in Brookfield also agrees families are most interested in accuracy and next in informing the public about time of calling hours and funeral service.

``Most people are pretty well-prepared,'' Madasz said. On occasion, we do need to research some information.''

Mrs. Goda said having the information together before someone dies is important.

``It's so easy to forget something when you're upset and you're experiencing grief,'' said Mrs. Goda, who wrote the obits for her parents and her husband.

``The ironic thing is I forgot my husband belonged to a union.''

Sometimes Mrs. Goda has to spend more time searching Herald files for information for obituaries of business owners and community leaders.

``I'm amazed at how many people born in this small community go on to have very important jobs in their lifetime all over the world, how diversified lifestyles can be,'' said Mrs. Goda, a former Sharpsville and society reporter for The Herald. She now works in the community news department and also handles weddings, anniversaries and organization news.

But in some cases not much background information is provided and Mrs. Goda finds that sad.

``I know every person's life is important and I want to know more about them,'' she said. ``I have learned through the years that each one has a special story to tell.''

Shawn M. Starkey wrote weekend obituaries for The Herald for four years before becoming a staff writer.