The History of Obituaries

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Since the dawn of civilization, and perhaps before, people have found ways to memorialize the dead.  Today, obituaries provide family, friends, and communities with a way to celebrate the life of the now deceased and to notify others of a person’s passing.  Obituaries have a long history – as society and technology has changed, so have obituaries.

The word ‘obituary’ is derived from the Latin word obire which means “to go toward, or to go to meet;” the Latin noun, obitus (a departure), also indicated death.  Evidence of death notices dates to the Roman era when papyrus ‘newspapers’ were distributed in Ancient Rome.  Amongst other events, the deaths of notable people were included in the papyrus papers.  Throughout the history of obituaries, this phenomena of focusing on the deaths of famous or prominent people has remained constant until the present. 

During the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press began an information revolution – information became more readily available to people, and the newspaper business began to flourish, with circulation beginning to be more widespread and common in during the 17th century.  In 1690, the first American newspaper began to circulate, following the beginning of newspaper circulation in other countries including Germany, Holland, and England.  Obituaries were usually only one line, as space in newspapers was limited, and they were published under several different titles, such as ‘Death Announcements’ and ‘Memorial Advertisements.’ 

The process of printing was time consuming, so the space available for obituaries in newspapers was restricted.  Several inventions, including the invention of an iron press in 1798 and a ‘rotary’ press in 1846, increased the production rate of newspapers.  During the Civil War, obituaries became a way for people to keep track of the deaths of relatives and friends, and they reflected religious and sentimental values inherent at the time.  Obituaries began to be published in local newspapers by family members of the deceased to notify others about the death and the upcoming funeral services.  In the 19th century, ‘Death Journalism’ became prominent and obituaries often included morbid details about the death of the deceased.

In 1884, Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine, which revolutionized the newspaper industry by providing a means for mass communication.  Prior to the invention of the linotype machine, the printing process was tedious – newspapers were pieced together letter by letter and usually were limited to four pages, and fewer people had access to newspapers.  With the linotype machine, several operators could type line by line in a much more efficient process.  The typesetting system worked by casting characters in type metal and forming complete lines instead of piecing together individual characters.  With the increased efficiency, newspapers were able to print more pages, and obituaries were allowed more space.  Newspapers became more widely available to the public, and they increased in length.  The linotype machine remained the main method of printing until the 1970s and 1980s, when it was replaced by other methods including phototypesetting and computer typesetting.    

At the beginning of the 20th century, a trend in writing obituaries as poems rose. Towards the end of the 20th century, obituaries were written with an increasing focus on the life stories of the deceased, and the ideals of democracy began to influence obituaries – the focus shifted to regular people or the ‘common man’.  Ordinary people who had died were recognized as equal to their more affluent and prominent counterparts in the composition of their obituaries.  In this ‘common man’ phenomenon, the virtues and qualities of ordinary people were highlighted, indicating the values important to society at the time. 

Modern obituaries continue to serve as notices about recent deaths and provide details on the funeral services that are to follow.  They also are generally focused on highlighting the deceased’s achievements during life and on their positive qualities – they are celebrations of the lives of the dead.  Now, obituaries offer a more detailed life story of the deceased and are usually written by family members, unless the deceased was a prominent figure, in which case, the obituary is often composed by a professional.

Now, another revolution in how obituaries are written and shared is occurring.  With today’s virtual venues, obituaries have taken on a new form as e-obituaries.  Various platforms are available on the internet for posthumous tribute and provide space for longer stories about the deceased. 

Throughout history, obituaries have provided family, friends, and communities with a way of being notified of deaths and with a way to memorialize the deceased in print.  Following advancements in technology and shifts in cultural values, the ways in which people think about and remember death has altered throughout time and will likely continue to do so as the world continues to change. 

 

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