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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Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See www.co.hood-river.or.us to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

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