Last Words OMBUDSMAN

ERNEST F. IMHOFF

June 21, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF | ERNEST F. IMHOFF,Ernest F. Imhoff is the Baltimore Sun's reader representative.

Baltimore Sun employees were mostly off on Christmas Eve, 1873.The skeleton staff had locked the door to avoid interruptions by ''drunken loafers.'' So when a messenger came with a note from a doctor, the watchman turned him away.

The man wandered away from the Sun Iron Building to the nearby rival newspaper, The American, which greeted him and his message. The next day readers of The American, but not The Sun, learned of the death of Johns Hopkins.

The Sun missed the big story but obits have been a staple from the start in 1837. The Evening Sun's Carl Schoettler won a national writing award one year for his elegant stories on former mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., news dealer Abe Sherman and one-time Sun board chairman Gary Black.

DeWitt Bliss, a 38-year veteran of county, state and police news at The Sun, figures he's done 14,000 obits in the past decade. ''So many interesting people . . . you wish you'd known them.'' He also wishes all obits requested could run, no obits would be cut and he wasn't so rushed on the phone. But the dearly beloved keep departing.

Obituaries are traditionally the last stories young newspaper reporters want to write and the first stories older readers want to read (partly, I think, to feel good about still running a race their friends have ended). Death is must reading. Recently:

* Many older readers said type for the death notice index was too small to read. ''I can't see if I know someone there,'' a woman said. When the type became bolder, readers applauded.

* A musician felt we down-played one of the great musicians of the century with only one wire-service paragraph for the French composer, Olivier Messiaen. It's an all-too-common occurrence for famous people in our tight news columns.

* A reader was livid when we didn't get to his father's death right away; a half-dozen other deaths were waiting to be worked. The man was called shortly thereafter.

If young reporters think death is for those on the next planet, readers are often looking for old friends on the next block. Clearly understanding this are Mr. Bliss, who is 61, and Albert Sehlstedt Jr., soon to be 70 (others also do obits).

A former space reporter, Mr. Sehlstedt left retirement part-time four years ago for the curious job of preparing obits on public people before they die (25 to 30 have appeared). ''When I call, the subjects are often more open than their friends,'' he said. ''But in any type of obit, before or after, it's time to be gentle as well as accurate.''

Mr. Bliss has some tips for the living:

* Obituaries are free news stories under the control of the news staff. Death notices are paid summaries of names, surviving relatives and funeral services, collected by the advertising department. Anyone can buy a death notice but news people can't guarantee all obits.

* Deceased persons should have lived in the Baltimore area, not just been born here or had relatives here. But they don't have to have fancy careers. Indeed, a Philadelphia Daily News reporter, Jim Nicholson, has etched a significant career writing features on the man or woman down the block and inserting the word ''died.'' It's an art form all papers could study.

* Most obits get in The Sun simply because relatives or funeral directors call the news department; the report is then confirmed. Most requested obits are published though not always as long as people want. The paper plans more space in the future.

* Obits that can be printed before a funeral, and thus be more useful to family and friends, get preference in order of appearance. Some deaths are called in too late but there's no specific cutoff time.

* Relatives might prepare for an obit by collecting this information: full name, residence, date, place and cause of death, date and place of birth and age at time of death, immediate family: spouse (how long married), parents, brothers, sisters, companions, the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren; schooling; military service, jobs (retired?), honors, activities, the type, time and place of funeral service, suggestions for memorials.

A few months ago, The Sun began asking relatives for the cause of death, as an integral part of the story. Generally, people have been forthcoming, including listing cancer, AIDS or complications from AIDS. If the family declines, the obits state that. Sometimes survivors don't know.

Fifty obituaries of public people are in Sun computers waiting for their subjects to die, a common newspaper practice. Mr. Sehlstedt has written 30 of them. ''I wish we would do nice long ones on unfamous people,'' he says. ''Bill Schmick, our former publisher, has it right. 'Everybody is well-known in his own circle.' ''

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