Who's responsible when an obituary seems like an attack ad?

Obituary for Kathleen Dehmlow
Obituary for Kathleen Dehmlow. What happens when RIP meets TMI?
Bob Collins | MPR News

It's a scathing treatise on one woman's life, and it raises the question of whether one should speak ill of the dead in an obituary.

The Redwood Falls (Minnesota) Gazette published a paid obituary this week for Kathleen Dehmlow, who died last month at age 80. It mentioned her marriage and two children before adding that an affair Dehmlow had with her brother-in-law resulted in a pregnancy. She left for California as a result, and the obituary read:

She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.

She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.

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Stories about the incendiary words went viral and the paper removed the entry from its website.

Gazette general manager Lisa Drafall confirmed the obituary was submitted by Dehmlow's children, and declined further comment.

MPR News tried to contact Dehmlow's children, Gina and Jay, but were unable to reach them.

What is the funeral home's responsibility?

Newspapers' obituary sections are typically noncontroversial, in part because obits follow a similar format and sometimes have a buffer in the form of a funeral home employee to help write them.

Dan Dahl, a funeral director in East Grand Forks, Minn., estimates his funeral home staff submit 95 percent of all death notices to the local newspapers, not the family, as was the case with the Dehmlow death.

"I'm almost 32 years as a funeral director and I've never had that happen where somebody has chopped mom off at the knees, figuratively speaking," said Dahl, who recently became president of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association. "I think it was uncalled for."

Dahl said he would try to talk a family out of such an attack and he thinks most other directors would, too.

"I would attempt to tell the family that is something that's more personal that you probably don't want to share and want to keep amongst your family," he said. "It's nobody else's business."

The Redwood Falls Gazette, like more than 1,400 newspapers across the globe, uses the third-party company Legacy.com to facilitate the online version of its paid obituaries. Stopher Bartol, Legacy's founder and CEO, said in a statement that his company hasn't needed to implement standards around dropping offensive notices "because the content standards of our newspaper partners are extremely high."

Is it up to the newspaper?

Deaths are written about in two ways in newspapers: One is with paid notice, or paid obituary, like the Gazette ran this week. The other is a news story, written by a reporter, about someone's life. Advertising departments usually handle paid notices, and editorial staff cover the news obituaries.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, said she's worried readers might not know the difference.

The Redwood Falls Gazette piece, she noted, "falls into the category of advertising rather than editorial content. And as advertising, it should be clearly labeled 'advertising' so people don't think that it's a news story."

The tricky part, Sullivan added, happens when the standards of what's acceptable are different between the advertising and editorial departments. One department might find a submitted, paid notice acceptable and the other might not. A screen grab of an interaction on the Gazette's Facebook page suggests the paper's editor and several others protested but were overruled.

"When I was editor of the Buffalo News, we did lots of staff-written news stories, which we called 'obituaries,'" Sullivan said. "And then the advertising department was happy to take people's credit cards and print paid notices, which we called 'death notices.'

"I think most people don't differentiate, and that to them, an obituary is a factual thing that's in the newspaper and you can take those facts to the bank. In this case, somebody has a major ax to grind and they are doing it in the form of this piece in the paper."

Bill Mitchell, a former editor of the Poynter Institute's website and a part-time media ethics instructor, likens the Gazette notice to an attack ad. Poynter is a nonprofit journalism school for media professionals in Florida and owner of the Tampa Bay Times.

"Attack ads against people who are in no position to defend themselves really are inherently unethical," Mitchell said. "And in this case, the person being attacked is decidedly unable to protect herself."

So even though it's advertising, it "does fall short of anything that a good news organization would want to publish. I think that's been reflected in that the paper has since taken it down."

The controversy is a reminder that the most important part of a newspaper for many people is the section that announces people's deaths, Sullivan said. "Nothing matters more to people than their family member's obituary."