The future of the newspaper industry is uncertain. Print journalism has been imperiled since the 1950s by radio and television news. The emergence of the internet in the 90s changed the way we consume and understand current events, and has disrupted print media in new ways with each new year.
In the back of the newspaper, near the classified ads, is the obituary section. It's a place where grieving families pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. A newspaper obituary also informs part of the public record, and furthers genealogy researchers in the future. How does this shift in the newspaper industry impact the way families tell life stories and mourn for their dead?
Though it may seem like an important tradition, publishing obituaries in the newspaper has not always been the way we pay tribute to the deceased. Writing about a dead person's life has been an important part of commemorating notable or famous people throughout history, but common folks weren't remembered this way until around the 19th century.
Still, many families would feel remiss if they didn't publish an obituary. What is it about this tradition that carries it forward? Telling stories about the dead reminds the living what is important in life. It also eases our collective anxiety about death to know that we will be remembered when we are gone.
For these reasons, obituaries have carried forward into the Digital Age, despite changes in the newspaper industry.
There are many digital options for obituaries nowadays. In addition to print obits, most newspapers with websites will publish online versions of obituaries at lower rates than the cost of printing the obituary in the newspaper.
Online obituary websites are another way to commemorate a deceased person. These serve the same purpose as a digital news website's obituaries section. Most funeral homes also publish obituaries on their own websites.
Even with the user- and budget-friendly digital options that are now available, when you think of publishing your loved one's obituary, you probably first think of placing the notice in a print newspaper. Compared to the cost of a newspaper obituary, which can run anywhere between $50 and $300 (or more), digital obituaries are an option for families on a budget.
But modern consumers of media have other avenues of publishing life stories—many of which are free. Facebook, blogs and other social media sites are widely available to people who want the ability to publish a loved one's life story quickly, and for free.
It's common to see commemorative Facebook posts announcing the death of a loved one, or paying tribute to their accomplishments. However, these posts are rapidly swallowed up in the constant feed of information in our digital lives. After a few weeks, that special tribute is lost somewhere in your timeline, along with cat videos, photos of food and memes.
Though it's easy and free to post on social media, this kind of tribute falls short when you're trying to sum up someone's whole life, in the aftermath of their death. There's also the issue of trust and accountability. Since anyone can post on Facebook and other social media, an obituary-esque post may seem like a good option for telling a life story, but there is nothing about the form or medium of publication to elevate the content to the level of a proper obituary.
There is also no guarantee that a life story you read on Facebook or other unverified social media websites is truthful and accurate. It's not uncommon for some people to create false death records for themselves in order to scam the government or deceive people they know.
Death hoaxes are one of the main reasons obituaries are still relevant in modern times. In the past, barriers to publishing an obituary were access to printing tools, cost and the writing of the story itself. In today's hyper-connected digital climate, there is a lower barrier to publish, but greater barrier to believe. Fake news, scams and tongue-in-cheek media make it unwise to believe everything we read online. On the somber occasion of announcing a death and telling a life story, a reputable obituary publisher quells concerns and doubt about the veracity of a life story.
When you publish an obituary in a newspaper or with a dedicated digital obituary publisher, there are extra levels of authenticating an obituary before it is published. For instance, professional obituary publishers will check death record, or contact the funeral home, in order to verify that a death is real. They will often edit for grammar, spelling and sometimes even form, in order to make the obituary one that does the life story of a dead person justice. Because this is the way a person will be forever remembered, it's important to get the obituary story right.
There is still a lot of value in announcing a loved one's death with a thoughtfully written life story. Publishing online or in a newspaper allows us to remember our dead loved ones, and revisit their story from time to time.
At a time when truth in the news media we consume isn't always reliable, obituaries are more important than ever. Publishing in a trustworthy publication allows the memory of those who have passed to live on in their stories. The ways we tell these stories have changed, and will continue to change with our rapidly evolving technology. However, the need to share, pay respects and mourn collectively has not changed. The obituary is here to stay.
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