History of the Obituary

The obituary has been publications’ way of showcasing the lives of many in wake of their passings. Decrypt language and anecdotes are often used when bringing forth the achievements of a loved one. The word Obituary stems from the Latin word Obit, meaning death. The word became popular as early as the 18th century, and was used to refer to short summaries of how one may have passed. These notices began appearing in America around the 16th century within the press as brisk and short memorials.

Over the course of 300 years and influence from the British, America began publishing deeper and more elaborate obituaries. For a brief period, around the turn of the 19th century, obituaries were written using verse, poetry, or short choruses.

During the 1880’s, a new style of journalism began filling American and British news publications. This new style called ‘Death Journalism’ was used to describe the dark and intense happenings of someone’s death. Later during the 20th century, obituary writers were reawakened by the arrival of ‘the Common Man Obituary’. These writers used this style to showcase the deaths of common people and government workers.

In 2001, the ‘common man obituary’ received a plethora of examples when The New York Times published a collection of 200-word obituaries of the civilian lives lost at 9/11 Ground Zero.

With the arrival of digital technologies and the internet, obituary writers were given a voice in the global community. Publications began profiting from online purchases of written obituaries. This includes local publications such as the Portland Tribune, and the Oregonian. The internet also enabled writers to create meaningful, creative and expressive multimedia pieces to showcase a life lost. Videos, music, prose, and other creative acts have been used in obituary writing.

However, blogs and publications dedicated to this kind of writing are declining quickly. Oregonian Editor and Vice President Mark Katches says, “There are fewer people to write obits, which means news obits often go uncovered. [But] people can still buy ads to announce deaths of their close family or friends.” Obit Magazine, a digital publication dedicated to the writing of obituaries, has become increasingly popular.

In current times, the number of newspapers publishing obituaries is falling. But the internet has counteracted this by providing new ways to tell a person’s story. Although the traditional obituary is still used, the internet introduces incomparable benefits.

Online obituaries can be shared on a global scale, while traditional paper publications are restricted to their local boundaries. Responses are immediately available to the family of the deceased. This was something not readily available with traditional newspapers. It not only helps a grieving family, “it can allow family members to recap and memorialize a legacy left behind and to tell a story about a loved one. For staffers writing a news obituary, it can often serve the same purpose by reaching a larger audience,” says Katches.

A trend forming along news media is the lack of local community member representation. Katches says, “when prominent people die who have made their mark in a community or left a lasting legacy—either on the world or national stage, or in your own backyard—readers like to have that legacy acknowledge.”

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