A Brief History of Obituaries
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.