‘Because you’ve only really been there, and you’ve really had it / When you have died in style in ‘t NRC Handelsblad”, sang Joop Visser in 1989. And you still see what the Netherlands has best in terms of class society. back in the family bulletins of this newspaper.
Politicians, diplomats, scientists, doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, art types, people from ‘old families’ – not that you never see them in other newspapers, but their names pop up more often in a black box NRC. Especially on Saturdays. Presumably it is more often a man. White. And with – when alive – red pants.
As for the nobility, NRC Handelsblad (1970) probably benefited from the de facto end of ‘OSM newspaper’ The Fatherland in 1972. „My aunt, who arrived in The Hague by train from the province, threw herself up The Fatherland”, writes Agnies Pauw van Wieldrecht in The dialect of the nobility (1985), on noble language and mores. “After a close examination of the obituary pages, she exclaimed with relief, ‘Luckily, no one is dead.'”
A lot has changed on those pages since then. First of all visually. Because until about 2005 there was no question of ranks and positions in NRC, but of uniformity: the text of each obituary – there was only text – was set from the same letter, with the name of the deceased slightly larger in capitals, and each message surrounded by an identical mourning border.
There was no deadline for Tina ‘t Lam for advertisements from deceased people
At the newspaper group PCM, of which NRC was then a part, many non-editorial matters such as family announcements were centrally arranged. “When NRC became independent in 2009, we had to set it up ourselves,” says Tina ‘t Lam, who retired from that department this year.
At the same time, the demand for typographical variation also increased. “The first request for color in a funeral notice was submitted to the management and editor-in-chief. It was allowed, for once, as an experiment. And then a logo, a photo, it was gradually accepted, although it often remained controversial at first.” ‘t Lam remembers how a large obituary was placed for the first time with a photo of a sailing boat as the background. “After which the people in the ad next door called out furiously: how could we have come up with something so vulgar!”
It has continued. “Here”, says Sophie Ham, spreading ten pages of family messages from a Saturday NRC of this year on her desk in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague. “Here you can see just about all the trends from recent years together.”
Virtually no ad is equal to another. Even if a deceased person gets multiple ads, they are often all different in format. She points to the imprint of a dog’s paw; in 2021 pets are welcome to sign up. Sometimes they even say that they will miss “the owner”. There is more than one company logo. There are drawings. And there are pictures of the dead, some small, some much more exuberant and in color.
Sophie Ham, was previously involved in Delpher, in which a large number of Dutch newspapers and magazines have been made available digitally since the seventeenth century. Advertisements and family messages can also be searched there; “a gold mine for sociologists,” she says. “The words people choose move with the times.” Take ‘cremation’ and ‘crematorium’; they are experiencing a peak in the early 80s – they conjures a graph from her computer – and then descend again. While then words like ‘say goodbye’ and ‘funeral center’ actually increase. “Apparently there is a need for more veiled language,” says Ham.
That goes hand in hand with more emotion. “Audience announcements should be brief, matter-of-fact, and above all clear,” wrote Amy Groskamp-ten Have in 1939 in her ‘etiquette bible’ How does it actually sound. “Good taste demands that one abstain as much as possible from emotional outpourings in advertisements.” Also, according to her, thanking doctors or nursing staff could “be avoided”.
The latter has long since become established. And more and more often there is “disbelief” and “bewilderment” among relatives, who are “deeply shocked” or “deeply sad”. For example, someone who used to simply “died” or “departed” is now “defeated in an unequal battle with his illness.” Also mentioning euthanasia or suicide is no longer taboo (“We respect her choice”), at least in NRC.
Family messages are among the best-read parts of NRC. Also because they provide fascinating glimpses into networks, for example. See the often multiple pages of advertisements for every company, board, association, party, year club, fraternity or rowing club that the deceased was once a member of. “It has something of a popularity contest,” says Sophie Ham: from the relatives that is. Especially if the advertisers en passant also tell us how great the institution is where the deceased worked. Such self-congratulations are now called on social media #HowCanIMakeThisAboutMe.
Funeral advertisements stimulate the imagination. Why seven advertisements from the workplace, but none from the family? Why does that one sister place a separate ad? And what about the advertisement that began with the words: “I learned by chance that my dear, witty husband has passed away…”? Comedian Ivo de Wijs once filled a booklet with it (The job tidings), such as, in the layout of an obituary: „Correct: the obituary dated October 1, 1985 of GS Lim was a cowardly area. GS Lim.”
You should always be on the lookout for such pranks, says Tina ‘t Lam. Although she can only remember one case from her NRC time, from 2018: an in memoriam for a previously deceased writer. But he wasn’t dead and so wanted to publicize his book. The ombudsman wrote extensively about it (“Nothing but good about the dead, unless they are still alive”).
“You can’t make mistakes with family messages,” says ‘t Lam. Those are lurking: the ‘main ad’ not above the other places, for example. Or post the company’s before the family advertises. Advertisements for one dead person with different names (say, Annemarie and Mieke) that are not placed together. Or vice versa: two deaths who happen to be called the same, are near (and through) each other.
Sometimes she intervened gently. Groskamp-ten Have already wrote it: “Wrong: Today my beloved husband, father, grandfather, brother and brother-in-law passed away. If one takes it literally, the whole family is extinct.” Or, more painfully, companies that have standard texts for staff and leave ‘blablabla’ on the dots in the supplied text.
‘t Lam has always been aware that its customers are sad or even in shock. She therefore replaced the word ‘deadline’ for the family messages with ‘closing time’. And she also had endless patience with sending the edited proof of an advertisement over and over again, even if a colleague had already called her three times to say that there is indeed such a thing as a deadline.
But she isn’t often asked what it’s like for her and her colleagues to take those obituaries for years. “I tried to shield myself a bit,” she says. “To see it as much as possible as pure text that has to be right. But every now and then I had to go for a walk after a phone call.” And sometimes keeping a distance was no longer possible at all. “MH17 will always stay with me: ten, fourteen pages of obituaries. For days. And all those families on the phone, all those lives. Yes, then we were all crying at the printer.”
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