Throughout its history, the obituary has played many different parts and come in several shapes and sizes.
The obituary can be a short, straight-to-the-point death announcement. Or it can be an epic account of a person’s life (Pope John Paul II had an obituary that was more than 13,000 words long). Obituaries can be sad, sweet, inspiring, and even funny.
But how did they start?
Origin of the Obituary
In Latin, obit translates to a few things. It can mean “going down, or setting (like a sunset).” Which is a bit more poetic than its other translation of “fall, ruin, and death.”
The earliest form of obituaries — like so many things — can be traced back to early Rome. The Acta Diurna, or “Daily Acts” was a daily papyrus newsletter distributed to the public. The newsletter included all sorts of happenings of the day, including prominent death announcements.
Fast forward to the founding of early America, and the obituary hasn’t really changed much. It’s gone through different names, like “Bill of Mortality” or “Memorial Advertisements,” but the purpose has generally been the same — to let a community know of a recent death.
In early America, obituaries were short — even for prominent people like the founding fathers. The main reason was because printing a newspaper was a time-consuming process. So the shorter the obituary, the better (just look at how short George Washington’s obituary was).
Over time, as technology and society grew, obituaries began to tell a bigger story.
Two factors contributed to the evolution of the obituary. As print press technology improved, newspapers could easily publish longer obituaries.
The second factor that played a big part was the Civil War. As soldiers left their home states to fight in the war, obituaries became more prominent. They would have more biographical details and list genealogical information to help spread the word to as many relatives as possible.
One interesting thing about obituaries is that historians have used their evolving styles to gauge the mindset and values of our country at the time. For instance, during the Civil War, obituaries were sentimental and religious. During the boom and growth of the Industrial Revolution, obituaries focused on a person’s wealth, their job status, and how many years they worked.
Even today, obituaries reflect different values in how they’re worded. Down south and in the Midwest, the deceased has usually “gone home” or “went to eternal rest with the Lord.” In the Northeast, obituaries tend to be blunt — people tend to simply “die” or “depart.” And out west, where cremation is more common, it’s typical to see obituaries mentioning being “scattered into the wind” or “returned to nature.”
Obituaries as an Art
During the latter part of 20th century, American obituaries entered their golden age. Publications like The Guardian, The New York Times and Time magazine employed professional writers to record and write long, witty, detail-rich obituaries. Local newspapers did the same, putting investigative work into obituaries for the common man and helping tell their story in a powerful way.
One such writer was Jim Nicholson who wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News. He helped highlight the ordinary and make it shine in his obituaries.
In an interview with CBS News, Nicholson said “We were the people paper; still is the people’s paper. And it just seemed natural to do real-house people, mechanics, plumbers, teachers, cops — nothing startling… Sometimes, when you get really small picture and granular, you get the big picture. What would make him mad? What kind of cigarettes did he smoke? Did he keep his shoes neat in the closet?”
It was this kind of thinking that helped usher in the golden era of obituary writing — an era where obituaries weren’t just for the rich and famous, but where everyone’s story got to be told.
Obituaries have evolved once again. As newspapers begin to downsize, dedicated obituary writers are becoming a thing of the past.
But the internet has led to new ways for a person’s story to be told. Families and funeral homes have taken to sharing a loved one’s life story online. And while the traditional newspaper obituary had an iconic run and is still prominent in some places, online obituaries are proving to have some benefits.
Unlike printed versions, online obituaries and digital memorials can be shared everywhere instantly. And support from family and friends also can come immediately in the form of comments, messages of support, and other stories with the family directly on a website, which is something they couldn’t do with a newspaper obituary. It not only helps a grieving family, it also paints a more detailed picture of the deceased.
Jade Walker, a longtime newspaper obituary writer and author of the Blog of Death told Duke University Reporters’ Lab that she enjoys the transition to online obituaries because she can move beyond simply using words to tell the story. She can incorporate comments, videos, pictures, art, and other digital media — leaving her with a more accurate way to tell a life story.