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Don’t let death derail your publication


by Mary Kay Downes

The loss of any student is a tragic event either through sickness, accident or suicide.

Often times staffs are shocked when events such as this occur and frozen into either inaction or precipitous action. They ask, “Do we cover this?”  They ask,  “How do we cover this?” They ask, “Should we call the parents?”

All of these are questions which can be taken care of by establishing a policy by the editorial board for inclusion in the staff manual having to do with death.  We have a policy in our yearbook staff manual and it precludes any type of memorial page.

We include a picture of the deceased student in the senior section of the yearbook the year they would have graduated. It is in a box with year of birth and death. If a faculty member dies, we include a similar box in the faculty section of the current year’s book.

Many in the yearbook world have recently been quoting Col. Chuck Savedge. I can clearly recall him saying in a session at CSPA about 25 years ago: “Yearbooks are for the living, not for the dead.” He was a wise man.

About 20 years ago we had three suicides among our student body, all occurring within three months. After the first boy died, there was a clamor in the school  (not the staff) to dedicate the yearbook to the students- who was popular – on  the football team and well known in all classes as his father was a volunteer  kickers coach.

Sadly there here was no such clamor for the other two children.  One was a transfer student from another state – a victim of depression, and the other a freshman whom few knew. The discrepancy of the grief demonstrated for the three made it clear to the editors that our policy was the right one.

I vividly recall judging a small book from Maine years ago. There had been a tragic auto accident the summer before school began. The event was referenced throughout the book multiple times: dedications, poems, pictures, heartfelt good-byes, etc. I imagine copious tears flowed at distribution, and not tears of joy.

If you don’t have a policy for death, set one.

Students approach death in many different ways depending on family, culture, experience. From observation, I see a mixture of alarm, sympathy, excitement, fascination, catharsis. Many times the ones who sob in the halls did not even know the deceased. They may be sobbing for a loss of life, but not necessarily that of the one departed.

Thus great care should be taken with coverage in scholastic media.

Last year we had a brilliant, involved young woman commit suicide. A teacher who was close to the student who died shared with me that another student wanted to  read a poem by Sylvia Plath to the class. The teacher demurred, and in the course of the conversation discovered that the reader really did not know the  student very well at all. She just thought a Plath poem fit the occasion.

It is really impossible to plumb the minds of others about death. Set a policy before the event occurs.

Related resources:

• High school: No yearbook memorial for student who committed suicide

• HS yearbook won’t include student’s baby, suicide victim

• School district agrees to students’ requests to honor late classmate


One Comment

  1. Well said, Mary Kay. This is a very important issue for school publications staffs. Student deaths are overwhelming to the school, both students and adults. Your policy allows students to recognize that the individual was part of the student body that year, but does not dramatize the whole issue. Over the years, we have had students die in auto accidents, gun accidents, snow mobile accidents and self-inflicted deaths. These students were part of the year, so your policy clearly addresses that they were part of the school, but does not carry on the memorials that prolong the grieving process. When one of my staffers died in March after the book was finaled with the printer, I noticed that kids spent more time celebrating her life that grieving over it again when the book came out in May. She would have loved the celebration and not the grieving. That is what we should do. Celebrate life.

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