The Evolution of the Obituary

ObituaryObituaries are a hub of information for genealogists. Within them researchers might find a person’s full name, the names of their parents, siblings, spouses and children. Important information such as where they were born, lived and were buried can be located along with their occupations, religious association and achievements. In many instances, an obituary is the only published material on a person’s life.

The contents of obituaries and the style in which they were written have changed over the centuries. Nowadays, obituaries often contain the basic information on an individual and are written in a factual way with a few personal lines to help describe the deceased. Obituaries weren’t always so factual. Some were literary works of art describing an individual in an esteemed manner and, in some cases, not stating any facts genealogists seek.

The obituary published before 1930 for a distant cousin distinguished in his field had virtually every piece of information required and more, save one important detail – the year of death. The obituary was 315 words long, a far cry from most obituaries that appeared in the early 1900’s for other family members. Most were short and sweet, little more than death notices. For example, “ July 31, 1912, Liverpool Advance: Deaths at Greenfield: July 27, 1912,  James E. Tibert aged 87 years, leaving one daughter, Mrs. C. C. Freeman, Greenfield and one son, George, residing at Fargo, ND.”Graveyard - Obituary

Before the 1900’s, obituaries were often shorter: “Friday June 8, 1883, Liverpool Times: Deaths in this town on Thursday, Elizabeth Tibert, aged 68 years.” Longer obituaries were reserved for prominent citizens who could afford to buy space in local newspapers. In other instances, the newspaper took it upon themselves to write about a prominent person’s death, leaving no need for a formal obituary.

A regular citizen may have a detailed write up on their deaths if it occurred in an accident or in a dramatic way that would be news worthy.

Obituaries first appeared regularly in the 1500’s, but some have been found as early as 59 BC in the Roman Empire. The Acta Diurna (Daily Events), a hand-written daily gazette, was posted in prominent locations in Rome and contained news on notable marriages, births and deaths, trials and executions and astrological omens.

After reviewing a number of obituaries during a certain time period for a given paper, one begins to realize they were all written by the same person. The expressions used in describing the individual’s importance to the community and the phrases used to identify certain family members are sometimes unique to a particular writer. For example, one writer might call a surviving wife a widow while another might call her a relic.

Obituaries continue to evolve. Many current ones follow a standard format. Most are written by family members or the funeral home, but some are written by the deceased before their death. Pictures, poems, quotes and Internet links to discover more on the individual are becoming more common.

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The Man Who Reads Obituaries

The Man Who Reads Obituaries - Diane Lynn McGyverBetween Friday July 13, 2012 (12:01am) and Sunday July 15, 2012 (11:59pm), my short story, The Man Who Reads Obituaries will be available for free on Kindle (Amazon). To take advantage of this offer, please visit Amazon .

Cover Blurb: Morris, Laurence Aiden—48, Dartmouth, has waited more than six months for this day. Still, he’s unsure if he’s ready to make the journey to Heaven…or Hell. It feels as if something is missing, but he can’t fathom what it is. While he bides his time, he reads the obituaries, hoping that by connecting with travelling souls, he’ll find what he seeks.

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5 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Obituary

    • Carolyn, when the obligations to Amazon expires on September 25th of this year, I’ll be able to post it to Barnes & Noble and several other places. Unfortunately, at the moment, I’m locked into Kindle/Amazon.

      Thanks for visiting.

    • Carolyn, I forgot to mention I have a few other stories published. You can find the links here, on my author page: http://dianelynnmcgyver.com/books/

      “Dancing in the Shine” was inspired by my genealogy research in Nova Scotia. It’s about domestic abuse and is for a mature reader. “Mutated Blood Lines” was inspired by the predictions for 2012. Both short stories are available for free until August 31st, and are available at Smashwords (which provides the Kobo edition and several others).

  1. Would you want genealogy for your column or the cemetery information of people in Nova Scotia or PEI?
    I am not familiar with your column as yet.
    Kay in Tennessee

    • Hello, Kay. Welcome to the Roots to the Past blog. Thank you, but no, I don’t use specific genealogy data for my column. Each week I discuss some aspect of genealogy or history that may help others research their family trees. My readers stretch from Newfoundland to New Brunswick, so I try not to focus on one particular area, one particular cemetery, unless it is beneficical to a wide audience, such as a military base cemetery where individuals may be from other places in Atlantic Canada.

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