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October 24, 2018 Beyond The Dash

The History of Obituaries

Why do we honor the dead with a public notice?

The History of Obituaries
Obituaries date back thousands of years — is the tradition of announcing deaths worth carrying forward into modern mourning? (Shutterstock)

It can be an odd sensation to stumble upon a list of the dead when you're perusing the classifieds section of your local newspaper, but there is a lot to be learned from reading obituaries. From these stories, we discover what really matters in our short lives. This wisdom is a stark reminder of our fragility, and our limited time on earth. Seeing obituaries is a reminder that everyone will face death eventually. 

Where does this odd tradition of publishing life stories in the local newspaper come from? Why do modern mourners still feel called to honor their dead this way, and how can we carry this tradition forward with us into the Digital Age?

Early obituaries

Though they weren't very similar to modern life stories, the earliest obituaries date back to early Roman times, around 59 BC. Papyrus newspapers called Acta Diurna (Daily Events) were published daily and distributed in Rome. They formed the basis of modern news with sections that covered crimes, weddings, births and deaths. The deaths mentioned in these publications were reserved for notable people.

Gutenberg's printing press

With the invention of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press circa 1439, people were finally able to publish information for the masses. Newspapers were printed, and flourished because of the new technology, as did religious texts, books and other literature. The tradition of publishing prominent deaths continued. This was a form of news, and this news was published as a means of dispersing information and keeping a public record. 

Classifieds obituaries

Obituary writing became vital during the Civil War, when ordinary folks came to rely on the death announcements to keep track of the living, the dead and family connections. 

People began to publish brief obituaries in local newspapers for their deceased relatives as a way of announcing a local death, and notifying the community of funeral services. Though obituaries are like a classified advertisement, they also informed a part of the public record. Obituaries are expected to present a life story factually, even when brief. 

It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that people began writing more detailed life stories in the form of feature obituaries. Journalists covered the high-profile deaths of politicians, celebrities and others who contributed to human knowledge and quality of life. 

The modern obit

Today, obituaries have again evolved to sometimes tell a more detailed life story. Because many obituaries are published on the internet, there is more space to tell longer stories of those who lived good lives, and left survivors to mourn. Even though they may not have achieved celebrity or notable status, those who loved them can memorialize them, and share the story with others. 

To this day, there are people who start their days by browsing the obituaries section of their local newspaper to learn of any recent deaths. This practice is common in smaller communities with one main newspaper reporting all the local news. People with loved ones living in various cities across the world use the internet to search for death announcements as well.

Modern obituaries still serve the same purpose: to announce the passing of community members. But they also tell stories, give us a snapshot of a person’s life, and teach us lessons we can carry forward into our futures. 

Digital memorials

Though newspaper obituaries are still a popular way to pay tribute to one who has passed away, digital memorials are a more interactive way to honor a deceased person. Most of these memorials have a digital guestbook for loved one's to sign their name and share memories. 

Families appreciate the flexibility of online obituaries because they can add as much detail and as many photos as they like. As more and more visitors add to the memorial, the full life story of the deceased person is preserved forever.

Beyond the Dash offers free digital memorials, so families can pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. 

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