A Brief History of the Obituary
Obituary is from the Latin obit, meaning death. The word obituary has been used to refer to published death notices since the 18th century.
British Inspiration: Although
brief announcements of deaths were
published in America as early as the 16th
century, it took another 300 years and
some impetus from the British (who beat
us to the punch) for the longer, more-detailed
accounts to appear in the press.
All About Prominence: Obits
have historically been penned about
people like soldiers, public servants,
celebrities and adventurers because,
according to historian Mitchell Stevens,
the audience hangs with such interest
on the details of their lives and, unfortunately, their deaths.
Mood-ometer: Over time, obituary
style has reflected the frame of mind.
Accounts of deaths of frontiers men and
women emphasized value of life; those of
Civil War soldiers were often sentimental
Poety Anyone? For a brief period, during the turn of the 19th century, obits were written in verse. A tribute to Guy Swain, who fell to his death while trying to chase a raccoon from a tree at night, was published in The Delaware Gazette (Ohio) on March 17, 1917. It begins:
A precious one is gone,
A voice we loved is still,
A place is vacant in our home
Which never can be filled.
O Guy, it seemed so bad,
The way you had to go …
Going Ghoul: Beginning in the
1880s, a trend called death journalism
inhabited newspaper obits in England
and the United States. During this
time, obituaries focused on the graphic
and often morbid details of the person’s
demise. The New York Times piece on the
death of Theodore Roosevelt, for example,
leads with an elaborate description of the
blood clot that “detached itself from a vein
and entered the lungs.”
Democratization: During the
late 20th century, obituary writing was
reinvigorated by the rise of the “common
man” obit, which recognized ordinary
people as well as the aristrocracy. Among
the pioneers of this genre is Robin Hinch
of the Orange County Register whose
candid and folksy tributes have been emulated around the country.
Lives Lost and Found: In 2001,
the common man obit was given a new
stencil with the “Portraits of Grief ” series published by The New York Times. This
collection of 200-word obituaries, later
published in book form, documented each
life lost at Ground Zero.
Virtual Venue: As the American
public discovered the Internet, the
drawing power of the obituary was
amplified. News organizations began
selling obituaries to online sites such
as the popular legacy.com. The Web
also enabled two other experiments:
multimedia tributes and obit blogs.
This Just In: One of the most famous
multimedia pieces was a video-obit
posted by The New York Times in 2007
as part of its “The Last Word” series.
The opening featured an appearance
by the newly deceased subject himself,
Art Buchwald. In the first frame, the
81-year-old humorist addressed viewers
with a giant grin and said, “Hi, I’m Art
Buchwald, and I just died.”
Everything Obit: Obituary blogs have waned in popularity but Obit Magazine, a website dedicated to all things death and tribute, has been growing in popularity since its premiere in 2007. Powered by 30-plus journalists, this magazine is considered an authority on the subject.
Material compiled by Holly Shreve Gilbert who began her study of the obituary while pursuing her master’s degree at Oakland University.