The Fascinating History of the Obituary

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Obituaries have been a source of information and fascination for people since they were first introduced by news compilers in the early 17th century. Over the years, they have undergone several transformations that reflect the culture, media and people living within each particular era. From flowery poems to lengthy news articles detailing a person’s life achievements, here is a look back at how the obituary has changed throughout history.

Only for the Prestigious The earliest obituaries served as a public announcement of a prominent figure’s death, and were reserved for only the most prestigious members of society. According to Penn State University, early American historical records show that obituaries were commonplace for wealthy, white males who held positions of power only. However, this began to shift in the early 20th century when everyday people began to be mentioned in the obituary listings. Today, people from all types of backgrounds may have their obituary published by loved ones to honor their lives.

Morbid Details In the late 1800s, obituaries moved from serving as a moving record of one’s history, and instead began to include morbid details of a person’s death. This was most commonly used to announce a soldier or public figure’s passing. Fortunately, this time in history was short-lived and quickly replaced by poetic verses that touched upon the sentimental remembrances of a person’s contribution to society.

Premature Publishing In an effort to be the first to publish breaking news, magazines and newspapers once wrote obituaries ahead of time so that they could be published at the first word of a prominent figure’s passing. While it may seem disturbing to some that an obituary was written beforehand, this has led to some interesting mistakes when an obituary was published prematurely. Mark Twain was one of the figures who had the last laugh when his obituary was erroneously published twice.

Today, obituaries are still included in newspapers and other media sources that convey important details regarding one’s life and accomplishments. However, the influence of technology can be seen as more people post obituaries online through social media and on websites like designed for memorials. While the obituary has changed throughout the centuries, it still stands as a remarkable tribute to loved ones lost and the impact they made on the lives of those around them.