Of all the documents you write, you definitely want to avoid typos on an obituary. It’s most likely the last thing anyone will ever read about your deceased loved one, so you want the obituary as close to perfect as possible. If you’re a professional writer, like me, the pressure for perfection is on!
As you know from my previous post, I was staying with family as we waited for my father to pass. He finally did pass a few weeks ago – quietly, in his sleep, and in his own home – and after he passed my mom, my family, and I began getting everything in order for the services. We wanted to get the obituary out somewhat quickly, because my dad made friends with practically everyone he had ever met, and we figured that between Facebook and the obituary that we would reach all parties interested in attending his services.
I volunteered to write the obituary, and I took the time to read through some local obituaries to see comparisons for format and the like. I then wrote down some notes, tinkered with my notes for a while, and finally had a first draft ready to read to my mom and my Aunt. My mom gave me a few corrections about specific dates, but overall she was cool with the content and layout.
Before I officially posted it with the newspapers, I reread and proofread it at least three or four times. As far as I could tell, everything seemed accurate, so I submitted it to the newspapers and received confirmation and PDF proofs almost immediately. I printed the proof so that other family members could see what the obituary would look like. One of my family members came to the house and read through the proof. At the time, I was in the other room, but I could hear the family member as he commented,
“Shouldn’t this be ‘is survived by’?”
From the other room, I rolled my eyes, but instead of starting a fight, I bit my tongue. Emotions were high, after all, as it had only been three days since my father had passed. So I called out that if I had made a typo, it was too late now, and that I was sorry for missing an error. I later looked at the proof and saw that I had put “has survived by.”
Typo or Perfectly Apropos?
My mom, my partners, and everyone else said not to worry about a tiny mistake like that, especially with all the other stress on my mind at the time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In part, it upset me so much because of how the family member had pointed out my error in such a brusque manner. I also got frustrated at myself, since this would be the last thing anyone would read about my dad.
Then I started to think about the wording and its meaning. Most of the obituaries I reviewed used “is survived by.” But what exactly does that mean?
If you were to say, “Frank is survived by his wife and his children,” what you mean is that his wife and his children are still alive and that Frank is now dead. The whole point of the obituary is to announce the fact that Frank has already died, so we don’t need to be told a second time with the whole “is survived” statement. I suppose by including “is survived” that it lets people know that Frank’s wife and children are still alive, which at a time before the Internet would be an important detail to know. In our modern era, though, such a practice and such phrasing seems antiquated and obsolete at best.
Now think about the phrasing I used – “has survived by.”
This phrase only changes one word. Instead of using the verb “to be” conjugated as “is”, I’m using the verb “have” conjugated as “has.” The word “have” can be linked to a multitude of definitions, but ultimately the word implies some sort of ownership, or the word describes a quality or state of being that something possesses.
Let’s go back to my example sentence, but let’s change “is” to “has.”
To say that “Frank has survived by his wife and his family,” would mean that his very survival in life, up to his last breath, was dependent completely upon his relationship with his wife and family.
At present, “is survived by” still serves as the traditional phrasing for most obituaries, and when it comes to death, many of us cling to our traditions out of fear and familiarity. Personally, for my father at least, I think this interpretation of “has survived by” more closely fits who he was and what he cared about. For many people, I think this might be a better, albeit more modern way of expressing their connection to their lost loved ones. So perhaps it’s time to embrace this typo as a sign for change.