Make obituaries clear, historically accurate

By Roxanne Moore Saucier, BDN Columnist
Posted Oct. 03, 2010, at 5:34 p.m.

I’ve been thinking about obituaries, having helped write a number of them over the years. There’s no right or wrong way, but there are things we can do to provide for clarity and historical accuracy.

For almost 60 years, my great-great-grandmother went by the name Mary A. Lord, the name she signed to the scenic oil paintings she did in Piscataquis County.

Had I been around to write her obituary in 1954, I would have started it like this:

“Mary Alice (Cummings) Bennett Lord died at a nursing home in Sangerville. She was born Jan. 13, 1859, to Silas and Sarah (Hildreth) Cummings in Greenville.”

You can see that by putting parentheses around her maiden name, we avoid implying that Bennett was her maiden name and Cummings one of two middle names. Rather, it seems clear that Bennett and Lord both were married names.

Now, an obituary isn’t a legal or vital record, but it’s certainly a historical record.

Obituaries in daily newspapers, such as the Bangor Daily News, often are on microfilm.

Putting all of Mary’s names together, in order, is important to me because the U.S. Census records don’t adequately tell her family history.

In 1880, she hadn’t yet married Prosper Alvarus Bennett of Guilford, or become the mother to Silas Bennett and Rena Bennett.

Most of the 1890 census, as we know, was destroyed by fire.

And by the time of the 1900 Census, Mary’s husband had died, and she had remarried Will Lord. So census records list her as Mary Cummings and Mary Lord, but never Mary Bennett.

Of course, not everyone wants to list each spouse in an obituary, though genealogists wish they did.

If Mary had been divorced rather than widowed, her obituary might have included among the survivors something like “and the father of her children, Prosper Alvarus Bennett.”

There are different ways to list surviving children, and the most common seems to be to list sons in a group and daughters in a group.

Family historians, however, appreciate knowing the birth order of the children, regardless of gender. Here’s an example, using made-up names: “daughter Jill (Bennett) Smith and husband Jack of Greenville; son John Bennett and wife Janet of Guilford; daughter Jean (Bennett) Anderson and husband Andy of Gardiner.”

Surviving grandchildren can be listed with their parents or in a group, such as “Bill, Bob and Betty Smith of Greenville, William Bennett of Guilford, and Andrea, Theresa and Elaine Anderson of Gardiner.”

When the deceased had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, sometimes the family decides not to list them all. (Obituaries in many newspapers, particularly dailies, do have a cost involved, often by the length of the item.)

In that case, the family might list the “grands” and the “greats” just by first name.

Especially in this day and age, family relationships can be confusing. After all, we may be the children of two parents, or one parent, or both parents and birth parents. Or maybe we were “the child of” but “raised by” other loved ones.

I recommend that you be as clear as you can, and are willing. Funeral directors compile many obituaries and will help if needed.

Sometimes the death of a relative can bring out hard feelings in a family. A long-absent parent or a sibling may be left out of the obituary for a number of reasons.

My thought is that we don’t have to like someone to list them as part of the family. And leaving someone out rarely fools anyone.

An obituary can accomplish many things, letting the community know that someone has died, sharing that the deceased was loved and mattered to the community, announcing the arrangements (or lack of) and making the life part of the historical record.

Funeral homes and newspapers have worked together to get out this news for more than a century. Some funeral homes have websites that augment what newspapers publish.

Occasionally there are funeral homes that steer people to their own websites in place of newspapers. I don’t know how much time it would take to check such websites in our eight-county coverage area on a daily basis, but I think it’s more time than most of us have.

At my grandmother’s knee I learned about reading the Bangor Daily News on a daily basis — and usually the obituaries first.

In the year 2010, she would be fascinated to know that BDN obituaries since late 2003 also are available online at www.bangordailynews.com — click on Obituaries, then on Obituaries Archive.

The site is very searchable.

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The Cushing Historical Society will host Judy Orne Shorey for “I Am a Lawyer,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, at the society’s Meeting House, Hathorn Point Road, Cushing.

Shorey’s talk will be about the story of her grandmother Helen Knowlton who overcame stiff objections and prejudice in 1899 to change Maine law and become the state’s first woman attorney. The event is free and open to all.

Traditionally members bring their own plate and flatware and a dish to share for the potluck meal at 6 p.m.

Shorey also will display pictures of turn-of-the-century Rockland. For information, call 354-6351.

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The Brooks Historical Society will hold its annual fall Heritage Day Open House with craftsmen and women at work 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Pilley House on Route 7 in Brooks.

Visitors will see old-fashioned crafts made in comfortable settings, observe the many displays at the museum, watch videos of local people or browse through memorabilia of Brooks. Free refreshments will be served on the porch. There is no admission fee, but donations will be accepted.

Craftswomen and men on hand will include Claudette Beaudry, rug braiding; Jolene Bryant, spinning; Darol Gibbs, basketry; Susie Gowie, needlework; John Jewell, woodcarving; Linda Jewell, painting with watercolors; Bud Menard, timber framing; Sandra Menard, quilting; and Susie Stephenson, primitive rug hooking.

Send queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, PO Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402; or e-mail familyti@bangordailynews.com

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/03/living/make-obituaries-clear-historically-accurate/ printed on December 22, 2014