Open up any local or national newspaper and you'll find a section devoted
to obituaries. Obituaries, also called death notices, are a way for family
members, friends, and acquaintances to learn about the details of a deceased
loved one's life as well as his or her funeral arrangements.
Obituaries date back nearly 300 years and have changed significantly during
that time. Many obituaries in the 1800s were a one-line announcement of
death. Since them, obituaries have become an additional way to celebrate
the deceased and pay tribute to his or her life.
In the early 1800s, newspaper printers set newspaper by hand, a painstaking
process that took a great deal of time. Due to the amount of work that
went into one newspaper (each of which was only four or five pages in
length), many deaths went unnoticed as newspaper distributors chose to
include news articles and advertisements instead.
If, however, an individual was well known in the community, a newspaper
editor may have set aside space for a longer, more detailed obituary.
When prominent members in the community passed away, newspapers reserved
anywhere from one paragraph to one page for an obituary.
One hallmark of 19th-century obituaries were the way infant's deaths
were handled. In many cases, children who died in infancy weren't
mentioned in an obituary by name-the mother or father was mentioned instead
(for example, "An infant daughter of Mr. Henry Jolley").
Another hallmark of 19th-century obituaries was the exclusion of money.
Newspaper editors didn't see obituaries as a way to make money. It
wasn't until the 20th century that monetization was introduced in
regards to obituaries.
Although "obituary" and "death notice" seem synonymous
today, this wasn't always the case. For a time, death notices and
obituaries were seen as separate articles fulfilling different purposes:
death notices were written by family, but obituaries were written by newspaper staff.
When the population spiked in the 1900s and towns became cities, obituaries
evolved as family members took writing into their own hands. Family members
would supply newspapers with "death notices"-articles written
by friends and families that outlined the deceased's life.
Over time, newspapers viewed death notices as a way to generate money.
Newspaper editors began charging family members to place a death notice,
and death notices were then treated as classified advertisements.
During the 1900s, paid obituaries varied in length, but most family members
wrote a paragraph or two to celebrate their deceased loved one. It was
around this time that family members also started to use an obituary as
a funeral announcement to invite the community to celebrate the deceased.
Today, we generally follow the mold set back in the 20th century: family
members write an obituary and then pay newspapers to run the obituary
for a set amount of time. Most newspapers charge by word count and usually
run the obituary for a day or two leading up to the funeral.
Modern-day obituaries vary in length and generally touch on the marriage,
family, and accomplishments of the deceased. Some people choose to write
different obituaries for different newspapers, especially if the deceased
lived in more than one city for a substantial amount of time.
Many current newspapers now offer space for anniversary obituaries, or
obituaries that family members write to celebrate their deceased loved
one on the one-, five-, or ten-year anniversary of their death. Anniversary
obituaries have steadily increased in popularity since the turn of the century.
Although obituaries and death notices have evolved over time, many people
prefer to think of obituaries as a way to celebrate the deceased and offer
friends, families, and the community an insight into their loved one's
life and accomplishments.
If you recently lost a loved one and are writing an obituary, reach out
to a memorial center to discuss other ways to memorialize your loved one.