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The Saturday Essay: Is an Obituary Really the Best Farewell?

Accustomed to liaison with the bereaved, the specialist journalist of the EDP Donna Louise Bishop encounters death on a daily basis. For this week’s Saturday essay, she examines why obituaries can be an appropriate way to honor a loved one.

Trade reporter Donna-Louise Bishop covers the death daily as this publication’s obituary editor.
– Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

For more than 250 years now, newspapers have published obituaries.

More than just an obituary, these unique items fulfill an important role in both local communities and society at large.

And despite a decline in print newspaper circulation over the past two decades, the familiar obituary format remains.

Whether they appear as traditional articles online or as tributes on social media, a dedication to a loved one remains a staple of popular society as individuals continue to be fascinated by the lives of others and their own morality.

The rise of obituaries

Many of us know that person who always checks the obituaries section of the newspaper first, or even on a media website.

Maybe it’s as simple as being curious about other people’s lives, or maybe it’s the need to see if they recognize old school friends, neighbors or co-workers. Whatever the reason, they are certainly not alone.

There is something about an obituary that encompasses a collective grieving process, more than a death notice.


During the pandemic, countless thousands of people were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones due to the restrictions
– Credit: Chris Bishop

And it’s not just the famous and familiar articles that have made the headlines, but some of the most read articles, at least those that have appeared in this article, are well-known faces in the community – farmers, teachers, barbers, postmen and even a beloved grandmother who visited her main street every day.

But how did this leap from a simple notice announcing someone’s death turn into something rather special and heartfelt?

The story

Although the beginnings of obituaries as we know them today were first published in the late 1750s, they did not become common in print until the early 1800s.

Prior to this, there is evidence that they were published in ancient Rome around 59 BCE. on papyrus diaries called Acta Diurna, translated as “Daily Events,” but even these were more like an obituary.

In the mid-19th century, newspapers routinely published obituaries, but these were submitted by local funeral homes. It was not surprising that these were brief, for in those days every printed letter had to be set by hand until the invention of the Linotype machine. Basically, the newspapers were thin and the obituaries brief.


Funeral procession of King George VI from Sandringham
– Credit: Archant Archant


We know that obituaries evolved from obituaries, but they also had other aspects over time.

The high number of infant and infant deaths in the Victorian era often featured brief verses of poetry.

As more and more newspapers gave space to obituaries, they also served as venues for public expressions of mourning or functioned as quasi-legal documents, serving to inform creditors who might want to file a claim. against the estate of a deceased.

Staying in touch as Donna-Louise Bishop launches He's Not Alone (pen pal initiative) channel

Writing an obituary can be a rewarding and cathartic experience.
– Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

At the turn of the 20th century, with the automation of typesetting, newspapers grew, allowing more space to be devoted to obituaries and obituaries.

It was during the 1930s and 1940s that the modern obituary model began to take shape, adhering to a familiar four-part structure including death announcement, a short biography, a section describing who survived the deceased and funeral information.

Not only have they become a place where individuals pay their respects, but they also leave a lasting legacy for genealogists and people who do family history research – an increasingly popular pastime.

Memorable obituaries

A tried and tested format, the standard style for an obituary remained virtually unchanged throughout the second half of the 20th century.

But in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, the opportunity to experiment with the format changed the narrative.

In the months that followed, The New York Times published short, narrative obituaries on each of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. With each recognized as an individual rather than a group united by devastation, it became apparent that a person’s life could be remembered even by a short biography.

And despite the shift from a short notice to a full life story, the content of an obituary remains central to its impact, as the example of a Californian named Karen shows.

Alex Block, funeral director at Peter Taylor Funeralcare on Unthank Road in Norwich, providing co

Alex Block, funeral director at Peter Taylor Funeralcare on Unthank Road in Norwich, providing a coffin
– Credit: Photo: Danielle Booden

Karen Ann Sydow died on September 5 at the age of 61. Her brother, Erik Sydow, sketched out a written tribute telling the story of a woman who “never had any desires or apprehensions”. Suffering from cerebral palsy, she could only utter three words: “Mom”, “Piano” and “Donalds”, a reference to her favorite restaurant, McDonalds.

It was a 189-word obituary titled “A Special Sister” and its brevity belied its weight.

It would go on to receive tens of thousands of views online and become the focus of a series of articles by journalists.

Why are they important?

Following a call for more transparency around issues such as race, sexuality and mental health, there has been a trend towards more open and honest tributes.

The bereaved have become more willing to open up the narrative on topics such as suicide, honoring their loved ones while raising awareness of important issues.

For some, it has also become a cathartic process for families, resulting in a unique, sometimes bittersweet memory that many claim they will “cherish forever”.

An obituary can be a story about a death, but it also offers an instant summary of what people want to remember in life.

The English writer and author, Virginia Woolf, summed it up well with this quote: “I wanted to write about death, only life happened as usual.”

funeral picture

Many have been denied the chance to mourn family and friends during lockdown
– Credit: Chris Bishop

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