Death: Why Henry Ford’s 150th birthday may ‘read strangely’

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Death

Henry Ford potrait

Welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher.

I’m grateful to veteran journalist Joe Grimm for raising the issue of obituaries in his comment on Monday’s post in this series.

“Should an obit be a news story that represents all the most important factors and issues, or should it be a tribute?” Grimm asked. “And should the rule be different for the famous?”

Although Henry Ford’s death was quite a long time ago, we’re going to see similar issues raised with media coverage of the 150th anniversary of his birth. No doubt some will want to pay tribute to Ford for his industrial and engineering genius, for the kickstart he gave to the middle class with the $5 day, for basically for putting the world on wheels.

At the same time, any consideration of Ford’s life will have to mention his anti-Semitism, his racism, his ignorant meddling in international politics, his violent opposition to the union movement and more. Stephanie Fenton, who writes the column on holidays and milestones for Read The Spirit, reports on the Henry Ford 150th birthday—covering both Ford’s considerable contributions to modern life and Ford’s anti-Semitism. Stephanie’s not the only journalist who has to balance this tough subject: Stephanie reports that PBS devotes 4 minutes of its two-hour special on Ford’s life to his anti-Semitism.

As Grimm points out, “This is one reason obits sometimes read strangely.”

One thing we do know: Readers love obituaries, according to a report on “First, they are a form of classified advertising that has remained relatively strong while other categories (jobs, cars, homes) have declined precipitously,” Poynter reported. “Beyond that, death notices are critical to newspapers because unlike the ‘big three’ classified categories, death notices are inextricably linked to editorial content—obituaries—that newspapers are uniquely positioned to provide, and that consumers continue to value highly.”

So while that part of the newspaper is often called “the Irish sports page,” it seems that it’s not just the Irish who enjoy reading about other people’s deaths.

What do you think about obituaries and other journalistic remembrances?

How do you think Henry Ford’s 150th birthday should be observed?


Peacemaker Daniel Buttry and historian David Traxel both have written about Ford’s controversial “Peace Ship” in the midst of the First World War. And, once again, Ford’s anti-Semitism comes up in his eventually quite stormy relationship with the chief peacemaker on the ship: Erika Schwimmer. Here’s a story about that chapter of Ford’s history.

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Joe Grimm says

    Thanks, Wayne and welcome back!

    One very visible sign of journalism’s conflicted view of obituaries is that in some newspapers, the ONLY people who are referred to with courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc.) are the ones in the obits.

    An obituary is also likely the only part of a newspaper that is clipped out and pasted in the family Bible.

    Reporters can feel uncomfortable on their first few obituaries because they don’t want to bother people at a difficult time. I remind them that a reporter who calls and asks for obituary information is really saying that this was a life worth chronicling. Imagine how it feels when a loved one dies, no one calls and the world seems to go on without noticing.

    Yes, obituaries are news stories — and so much more.

  2. Kathy O'Gorman says

    And isn’t it interesting that the Detroit Free Press (Michigan’s largest newspaper) has largely gotten out of the business of writing local obits — except for really famous folks they can’t ignore. Little people — forget it.