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Submission Info

Family and friends can submit the obituary of a recently deceased FCIS member, along with a photo and other desired rememberances, to info@funeral
informationsociety.org
.

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 and religious.

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.