Fake obit causes a different kind of grief

A woman came in, distraught, with two family members last week, asking to put in an obituary. As the person who handles obituaries at the News, this is something that happens occasionally, and is always a sad job.

This particular meeting was more intense than most; the woman was nearly hysterical and needed assistance from me in filling out the obituary form. Her family members were kept busy consoling her.

Except for the degree of emotion and the almost unbelievable tragedy the woman described, there was not much difference between this meeting and all other personal meetings I have had with grieving families in the eight years or so I’ve been responsible for obituaries.

But it turned out that the obituary was a total fabrication (see retraction, page B5). The young man is alive and well and living in Pineville, La., with his custodial parent, his father.

The obituary came out in the Saturday, Feb. 25, paper. At 8 a.m. Monday morning, I got a call from the boy’s father, who said he had no idea what the mother was up to, but that Zachary was fine and he expected to see a retraction in the paper.

Part of the reason for the delay in getting the retraction published was that I had a “He said, She said” situation going on; I didn’t know either party (the mother was a newcomer to our town and the father lives 2,000-some miles away) and frankly, I didn’t know who to trust.

But with the help of our local funeral director, I learned that there was no death certificate issued in Idaho, where the mother said he had died, nor was there any record of his being admitted to St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, the place she said he died.

I immediately pulled the obituary from our website, and decided not to republish it in Wednesday’s paper with the name correction (I had somehow changed Thompson to Johnson in the first publication).

Then the phone calls started coming in from Louisiana, letting me know that Zachary was certainly not dead and was distraught to hear his obituary was in our paper. I finally got confirmation from the father’s attorney in Pineville, La.

I have no idea what the woman’s motives were; the reason may yet become apparent.

All I know is, this experience has been nearly as upsetting to me as it has been to the young man and his family and friends back east, and will surely be upsetting to members of the local church that held a memorial service for Zachary earlier this week. It has been a bewildering and confusing situation.

The worst part is that I fear I will approach future obituaries with a degree of skepticism that they don’t deserve; we have never demanded to have proof of death, such as a death certificate, for obituaries that don’t come through funeral homes, and it would be upsetting to an already-traumatized family member to have me question the validity of his or her loss.

Some newspapers only print obituaries that come from funeral homes, but there are many cases when families handle the arrangements themselves or friends simply want to remember dear ones; I would hate to see us adopt that policy.

This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime incident and will never be attempted with us again; I certainly hope not. But I do mourn the loss of trust in people that I had before.

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