Joyce E Williams. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
To notify select “publics” or constituencies that one from among them has died is an old and valued tradition. How this is done, in what detail, or even what it is called varies over time and from one culture to another. As Lawuyi (1989) concludes, some form of death publication is “a symbol with which the Muslims, the Christians and the traditional religionists all identify” (p. 94). In every society, except perhaps in time of war or natural disaster, there is some traditional means of publicizing individual deaths. In England, before newspapers and printed death notices, town criers, later known as “death criers,” announced the deaths of prominent persons. Dressed in black, often with a death’s head and crossbones printed on the fronts and backs of their robes and sometimes with a bell in hand, they walked and cried out their messages: “Of a charity, good people, pray for the soul of our dear brother [or “sister” naming the dead] who departed this life at” [stating the time] (Habenstein and Lamers 1955:104).
In small, primary communities or in remote areas of underdeveloped countries, even today, notification of death may be by word of mouth or by public postings of handwritten notices. In some villages or small towns, a death bell tolls and people immediately set about gathering information as to who, when, and where. In much of the world today, however, there are written, formal, and stylized notices of death. Typically, in brief written form, we learn that a friend, acquaintance, colleague, fellow worker, or fellow citizen, perhaps even a relative, has died. Terms such as obituaries, death notices, mortuary press announcements, necrological accounts, and in memoriams are just some of the labels used to represent social and published communiqués of death. For purposes of this presentation, the term obituaries will be used generically to include all similar public notifications of death. Minimally, these written artifacts delimit a life begun, lived, and ended, or as Long (1987) said, they are “mediated, abbreviated stylized biographies” (p. 965). More important, as Alali and Adjaye (1998) found in their study of death notices in Ghana, “Public communications about death signify how death is represented in a culture” (p. 223).
Erving Goffman’s (1986) concept of frame analysis can help to make sense both of death and of obituaries as social responses to death. Frame analysis uses the “basic frameworks of understanding available in our society for making sense of events and to analyze the special vulnerabilities to which these frames of reference are subject” (p. 10). A frame for Goffman is simply a concept for the organization of experience. By “vulnerabilities,” Goffman acknowledges that what may appear to be real or factual as framed is not always as first perceived, or not what is really happening. An event or events are typically framed as first perceived or as they appear to be. As Goffman points out, however, frames are vulnerable and sometimes require “rereading.” After reconsidering an event (or events), what was at first taken to be fact may be found to be a joke, a misrepresentation, a misunderstanding, or a deception, in which case another frame is needed to make sense of the happening.
Although Goffman’s (1986) frame analysis is more complex than will be obvious here, a discussion of obituaries will benefit from his concept of primary frameworks, which allows users “to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms” (p. 21). Primary frames are anchored in the real world and do not depend on prior interpretation but on the individual’s organization of experience. Goffman goes on to differentiate two kinds of primary frameworks: natural and social. Natural frameworks identify occurrences as “undirected, unoriented, unanimated, unguided, purely physical… natural determinants” (p. 22). Although natural frames can be misinterpreted because of experiential limitations, they are, nevertheless, less vulnerable to such misperceptions than social frames. Social frameworks are products of our social world, deal with “guided doings,” and “provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being” (p. 22). These social or guided frames provide understanding of both manipulation of the natural world and action that human beings take once involved in the rules and parameters of the social frame. In this context, death is a natural frame, as the Yoruba say, “aimasiko ni ndamu eda” (not knowing the time [future] causes man to worry) (Lawuyi 1989:107). Regardless of the interpretation or social frame that will later be placed on death, it is final; it is the physical end of a life and of experiencing that life in the everyday. On the other hand, how death is dealt with is a social frame: the end, a transition to another life, an escape from the pain of this world, or as a heavenly reward. Obituaries are a part of grief management; they are social frames that present death in a very limited way to others.
Obituaries incorporate both “personal identity” and “social identity” (Goffman 1963). They tell us who a person was in terms of his or her unique life history items, and they locate the deceased in certain social categories by age, sex, race (if a picture is published), and sometimes, by coded information, in religious and social class groupings. Obituaries go a step further; they also provide a social commentary on death as argued in an earlier work on obituaries for those who died of AIDS (Williams 1997). Different cultures and languages translate these communiqués about death into that which is contextually meaningful. In Yoruba, in southwestern Nigeria, obituaries are largely presentations of life course: birth, growth, and decay. When people die in youth or middle age, they are mourned for what would have been (Lawuyi 1989). By contrast, if they die in old age, it is expected; it has to be.
In Mexico and among some Spanish-speaking communities in the United States, death announcements are known as esquelas (announcements) and signify that family and friends should gather to pay final tribute to the deceased (Williams 1990). According to Williams (1990: 33-34), until the 1950s (and less common after that), esquelas were printed notices distributed locally and often delivered in person to the homes of friends and relatives of the deceased. They announced the death as well as the time of the wake (velorio) and funeral service. The esquelas were at times accompanied by a corona (wreath) or purple ribbon on the front door of the home, business, or both of the deceased. This framing of death informed those who might come unknowingly to the door of the deceased that the routine of everyday life had been disrupted by a natural and uncontrollable event.
In the small Texas town where I grew up, one could not rely on the weekly newspaper to announce deaths. By the time the paper was published, some deaths were no longer news and funerals had already taken place. Deaths were publicly announced by the use of “funeral notices” printed on 3″ × 5″, black-bordered cards strategically placed at the checkout counter of every store in town as well as on the doors of other businesses and churches. These notices served to inform the public about a death and to disseminate information about the funeral because in that small, largely protestant, town it was considered an affront to the deceased if people did not “turn out” in good numbers for the funeral. Also, the funeral notice served as an implicit invitation for the reader to prepare food to be taken to the home of the deceased where survivors would gather, some having traveled a long distance, for a time of remembering and grieving prior to and after the funeral.
Typically, death notices constitute 100 to 150 words and include information in the following categories: (a) facts as to who the deceased was—located in time and place, including, in some cases, cause of death; (b) information on funeral or rites of last remembrance; (c) survivors; (d) organizational or institutional affiliations, honors, and service recognitions; (e) personal messages or tributes from survivors.
On the surface, there should be little dispute as to the facts that provide the essential information of most obituaries. Name, age or date of birth, place of birth, and residence are the minimal ingredients of obituaries. In earlier eras, however, women were sometimes not listed by their own names but by their husbands’ names, such as Mrs. William Johnson or Sarah, wife of William Johnson. Also, in earlier eras, a person’s date of birth was often not certain; it may have been recorded only in a family Bible or in some other family record lost to survivors. African Americans born in slavery rarely had legal records of births. In fact, even their names may have been in dispute because many retained their original family names and did not own the names imposed by slave masters. Nor is place of birth always recorded and known, particularly in underdeveloped countries where most births take place outside of a hospital.
Date of death and place of death are generally known and publicized in developed societies except perhaps for victims of crime, the homeless, or casualties of war. In some societies, information about cause of death may not be made public because it is considered less important than information about the life lived. On the other hand, it was cause for some triumph when the New York Times printed the first obituary where AIDS was identified as the cause of death (Winick 1996). Cause of death is not consistently reported, sometimes because it is judged to be irrelevant (if the person was old, for example); sometimes it is withheld at the request of the family, as in cases of suicide.
Seldom today will we see the kind of detail about cause of death that appeared in the Baltimore Sun in 1855.
About twelve o’clock on Monday night, Mr. George Escor died very suddenly at the Mount Clare depot. It appears that the deceased had been in the employ of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company for about 20 years, and on the night of his death had been attending to his duties as a watchman. When found, he was lying upon the floor with his face downward, and life totally extinct. Coroner Chalmers held an inquest over the remains, and the jury rendered a verdict of death from “a visitation of God.” The remains were conveyed to his late residence on Cove street, between Raborg and Fayette. He leaves a wife and children. (Hume 2000:53)
As Hume (2000) points out, causes of death are often contextualized by history. She cites as a case in point, deaths from a yellow fever epidemic in the mid-1800s. Hume also notes, in that same era, that the New Orleans Picayune Times “spent much time and space assuring … readers that the true times and causes of death were in the hands of the Almighty” (p. 70). The social framing of death took on new meaning during the Civil War when the natural framing of death changed. Often, bodies could not be recovered and the usual funeral ceremonies could not be performed; sometimes, even facts about a death were unknown. Obituaries took on both an informational dimension vis-à-vis the war as well as a final framing of death for family members (Hume 2000:54-56).
Gary Long (1987) studied basic identifying information in obituaries from 1856 to 1972 and lamented that “over time, obituary portrayals tend to become rational reconstructions of people’s pasts” (p. 992). Interestingly, although all obituaries follow a certain “formula” of ingredients, the way in which these ingredients are put together represents a unique individual. As Lawuyi (1989:104) points out, the variables in combination are such that each individual has no counterpart; even twins have different names and are unlikely to die at the same time or in the same way.
Rites of Last Remembrance and Funerary Information
One of the functions of obituaries that appear in local newspapers or by local postings is to invite the public to the funeral or memorial service. It is assumed that such services are open to the public unless otherwise stipulated by the coded message “services will be private” (meaning family and invited guests only). In Iran, posted funeral notices are an invitation for fellow citizens to show their respect for the deceased by walking seven steps in the funeral or burial procession (Mahmoud Sadri, personal communication, April 2002). Rarely today do obituaries describe the funeral because it has not yet occurred. In the past, however, descriptions of the funeral were typically a part of obituaries. For example, Hume found the following description in a New Orleans paper in 1855: “All that was mortal of Francis T. Porter was followed to ‘the place for all living’ yesterday afternoon by a large number of our most respectable citizens, the friends, acquaintances, and associates of the deceased” (Hume 2000:70).
Ogbuagu (1989) recounts some rather dramatic changes in the marking of death in Southern Nigeria over the past 30 to 40 years. Death, funerary arrangements, and obituaries have become a means whereby families demonstrate prestige and wealth, especially if the deceased is Christian, male, and over the age of 40. Social prestige in death is demonstrated by the length of paid obituaries (usually from a half to a full page in local papers) and length of time lapse between death and burial. On the latter point, Christians in Nigeria have some advantage in the social framing of death because Moslem law requires that the dead be buried quickly, usually within 24 hours, and the belief is that the remains are “useless,” “mere earth” (p. 92).
In the United States, it is always cause for some general level of grief, and worth a news story, when an unidentified body is found that goes unclaimed and receives a pauper’s burial. Likewise, families that cannot recover the bodies of loved ones—soldiers missing in action, victims of accidents or natural disasters, or victims of terrorist attacks such as the one on the World Trade Center (September 11, 2001)—grieve not only their loss but their lack of closure. The final social framing of death is associated with the physical remains. The social experience of death in the United States, and in much of Europe, is organized by the physical remains of the deceased, even if those remains are sealed or reduced to ashes. Memorial services held for the dead when no physical remains are available are an effort on the part of the living to achieve closure.
There is considerable variation in the listing of survivors in obituaries, but almost without exception it is customary across cultures to list some. The listings vary because definition of “family” varies culturally and individually. In the typical middle-class, Anglo-Saxon tradition in the United States, a listing of survivors includes (all that apply) spouse, children, parents, siblings, and perhaps grandparents but not cousins or aunts and uncles. Among Hispanics, however, where “family” is inclusive of extended kin, it is not unusual for listings to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and godparents. A recent study of the obituaries of persons who died of AIDS revealed that it is not uncommon for same-sex partners to be named along with the traditional parents, children, and siblings (Williams 1997). Such has not always been the case; Shilts (1987) lamented the fact that lovers, domestic partners, or long-time companions were never listed among the survivors in obituaries in the early to mid-1980s. By 1991, however, 68% of newspaper editors, responding to a survey, agreed that “obituaries for gays and lesbians should include the name of a long-time lover or domestic partner among survivors if the family of the deceased requests it or if the deceased leaves instructions requesting it” (Brent and Greenwald 1991:11).
One of the functions of obituaries is to certify that there are those left behind to mourn the deceased and that, indeed, his or her progeny will continue. For individuals who die without family who can be identified, there is often an effort to show that they will be missed by use of common, euphemistic phrases indicating that [she/he] “will be missed by a host of friends and coworkers.” Sometimes, in acknowledgment of the gay community, fictive family members are listed among survivors, some by name, such as “Alice, my ‘Mom.'” Other obituaries simply report that the deceased is survived by [his/her] “other family.” Occasionally, survivors are acknowledged as the “adopted family” of the deceased (Williams 1997).
A vivid example of the fact that obituaries are our means of socially framing death and of the extent to which such framing represents a part of survivors’ grief management is captured by Alleyne Johnson’s (1995) article on the use of death as “critical pedagogy.” Johnson found a group of inner-city eighth graders who were familiar with death at an early age and who struggled to survive while seeing too many of their peers die violent deaths. The author, also the teacher, helped the young people to deal with death and with their own emotions and familiarity with death. The students began a newspaper that included a section called “Special Memories,” which in the first edition included six obituaries. As survivors, these unsophisticated young people used the very traditional medium of obituaries to manage their own grief and fears about death and to pay tribute to friends and family. They wrote of one fallen brother:
In Loving Memory of Omont L. Wilson
Omont was a proud young man. He stayed in J.F.K Manor. Omont had two brothers by the names of Marvin Wilson and Kinko Wilson. Omont departed this life a few days after Christmas. He left behind loving memories of what he and his family used to do together. He left behind good and helpful friends that hang inside of “Easter Hill” on South 26th Street. Omont liked to ride bikes with me, Ree-Love, Ghetto “o,” and other friends. Omont is badly missed by family and friends. May He Rest In Peace. (Johnson 1995:229)
Organizational or Institutional Affiliations, Honors, and Recognitions
Apart from demographic and death-related facts, survivors, and funerary information, institutional and organizational affiliations and recognitions of various kinds are the most frequently cited information in obituaries. In death, the deceased are often represented by what they have done. As Alali (1993) commented, “The dead are … praised for their good deeds, not their faults” (p. 841). In the brief public announcement of death, institutional affiliations are “shorthand” for activity, involvement, accomplishments, and recognition. Kearl (1986), for example, formulated 14 categories of institutional recognition (business, science, religion, law, medicine, etc.) appearing in obituaries. Occupation or professional accomplishments are perhaps the most frequently cited of such information, followed by volunteer work, church service, and veterans’ service. An ordinary citizen with an ordinary job is not likely to be associated in death with occupation. Those with credentials such as doctor, minister, lawyer, or professor, however, are likely to be recognized as such in death, as will those with outstanding professional accomplishments in areas such as entertainment, scientific research, or architecture. Also, male jobs are likely to be, in death as in life, treated as more important than those of females. Spilka, Lacey, and Gelb (1980), for example, found that removing occupational information from male obituaries reduced the male-female differences in length to an insignificant level. Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to be recognized in death for their church work and family roles.
Another way that the deceased are associated in death with certain institutions or organizations is through the call for “memorial contributions” (in lieu of flowers) to be made to the favorite charitable organization or cause of the deceased. For example, Williams (1997) argued in the case of those who apparently died of AIDS that memorial contributions for AIDS services and research constitute significant financial assets for those organizations. Euster (1991) examined memorial contributions requested for the elderly deceased. By far the most frequent requests were for contributions to churches or other religious organizations. A distant second category called for funds to be contributed to national and local chapters of specialized health associations and foundations. Respondents to a survey of organizations that were on the receiving end of memorial contributions reported such contributions to be important because they (a) offer comfort and support to the bereaved family, (b) provide additional resources for continuing projects and services that would not otherwise be funded or continued, (c) strengthen the memory of the deceased, and (d) assist the bereaved in expressing appreciation for support and care received by the deceased. Through memorial contribution, the dead serve the living. More important, because of the contributions of survivors, the deceased will live on through the causes that they cared about.
Because obituaries have become produced by formula, there is obvious effort to make some stand out from among the others. Frequently, this is done with a few lines of poetry, a favorite Bible verse, or lines from a song. Sometimes family and friends will begin or end the obituary with a few words of personal farewell to the deceased. Two nieces, apparently the only surviving family, ended their public obituary with, “Good night Uncle Bill” (Williams 1997:309). The obituary of a 63-year-old woman identified only as a mother and grandmother ended with, “She was love, so she was loved by many.” A 63-year-old man, identified as a businessman and avid fisherman was given this farewell, “And so now, Roy, we must say goodby. We know you had to go, but we will miss you until we meet again” (Dallas Morning News, May 8, 2002).
The Chinese show their respect in a much more formal way and, in fact, publish obituaries only as a means of personal tribute; in Chinese culture obituaries are only for those deemed deserving of high praise and esteem. For example, an obituary published in the Dallas Chinese News (April 12, 2002) carried a full-page tribute to the Revered Mr. Si-an Zheng (Henri Tey) born in Xiamen, Fujian Providence. It read, “Family members, relatives, friends, and fellow villagers all express their deep sorrow” (translated by Philip Yang, May 2002). It was signed by “Humble Family Members”; those listed included a sister, two sons, two daughters, two sons-in-law, and one granddaughter.
Lawuyi (1989) notes the use of Oriki, a “personal praise name” in Yoruban obituaries as an “authentification of difference.” Oriki “encourages detailed knowledge of the achievements of the forebears” (p. 105). Oriki presents social roots as illustrated in the following example: “The son of the elephant hunter in Ibadan; The son of Asunmo (personal name), the friend of Egbas (a community of Yoruba). Animashaun, the friends of generous people, Rest in peace, the son of Animashaun” (Lawuyi 1989:105).
A Sunday edition of the Dallas Morning News (May 19, 2002) carried almost two pages of obituaries, and one stood out both for what it said and for what it did not say. It identified the deceased as a 42-year-old male (picture included) who had died a week earlier. There were no data included on place or cause of death; there was no information about a funeral or memorial service; nor were any survivors listed by name. Twenty-nine of 32 lines were devoted to a good-bye message containing both praise and regret beginning with, “We wish we could have helped you more” and ending with “We rejoice at your gain—perfect peace, perfect love, the end of the struggle. We look forward to being with you again. Until then, you will always be in our hearts. Love, Your Family.”
Obituaries in Cultural and Historical Context
One of the constants of death, as Alali (1993:837-38) points out, is its presentation as an external contingency over which people have no control. Death is “the wicked,” “the enemy,” or it is the inevitable and uncontrollable “call by God.” Some views of death make it more palatable, more acceptable, as when death is presented as a medium to transport humans from the temporal to the spiritual world, or it is the “final rest” and the force that takes the person from the “upheavals of this world” to a world of peace and tranquility. Obituaries represent cultural responses to death. Beliefs and attitudes about death are framed in obituaries or death announcements where the focus is often on the deceased and on the living. Obituaries, in many respects, represent the framing of a final linkage between the deceased and the living. Obituaries are life’s final social frame.
Before the multimedia era of daily newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet, the public learned of the death of a friend or community member by word of mouth, by the village death crier, by the ringing of a community bell, by funeral or death notices, or by a gift delivered to one’s door. According to Habenstein and Lamers (1955:203), the custom of making gifts to the living to announce funerals was practiced in England and was brought to the colonies. For example, at the death of a prominent person in the community, it was common practice to send gloves to the homes of other persons of prominence. Later this practice gave way to that of distributing gloves, as well as other gifts, at the funeral ceremony. In fact, the giving of gifts at funerals apparently escalated to the point that it symbolized extravagance more than respect, and Massachusetts responded in the early to mid-1700s by passing laws prohibiting “extraordinary expense at funerals” (p. 204).
Today, the means by which a public learns about death is less varied and generally less ostentatious, but by no means is the ritual of announcing death uniform. For example, an Iranian colleague (Mahmoud Sadri, personal communication, April 2002) tells me that in Iran, even today, death notices are displayed for the public on storefronts, on light posts, and in other public areas as well as in newspapers. In contrast, a colleague from China (Phillip Yang, personal communication, May 2002) reports that in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, obituaries are reserved for persons of high social status or social position, as mentioned earlier. This practice has apparently carried over among Chinese Americans; he observed that the largest Chinese American newspaper rarely carries obituaries, and if it does, they are for persons widely known and respected. For the Chinese and Chinese Americans, obituaries are vehicles for glorifying persons of high class or achievement. Similarly, the earliest term among Jews to denote the death notice was kol avel, which translates into “voice of sorrow,” and such announcements were reserved for those who were especially valued (Roniger 1992:136). Roniger (1992) suggests that these early publications of death in the Jewish community were “lamentations” of death, and “reflected prevailing criteria of social evaluation. They … for instance … praised rabbinical and scholarly figures. Only gradually were they extended to include wealthy philanthropists and rulers of the European and Middle Eastern countries where Jews lived” (p. 136).
Mortuary press announcements (MPAs), according to Roniger (1992), did not stem from a common Jewish tradition. Rather, they seem to have evolved from earlier “lamentations,” which were very personal announcements expressing the loss and sorrow of a valued member of the community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these lamentations gave way to more objective “laudatory necrological obituaries” that tended to focus on the life and work of the deceased. Publication was still selective and usually reserved for prominent individuals. Roniger also reports that no space was regularly devoted to death accounts in most Jewish publications until around the turn of the century when some papers began to adopt the “Anglo-Saxon style of publishing very brief death notices.” In contrast to the selectivity of lamentations and obituaries, MPAs were a popular “democratic medium” (pp. 151-52). Roniger states that over time, MPAs became synonymous with the “Family Announcements” sections of some papers and served an important function in “connecting far-flung distanced communities; they enabled people to keep track of the movements of acquaintances and facilitated the expression of sympathy even across nations and continents” (p. 163).
Hume (2000) compared obituaries in three newspapers from 1818 to 1838, 10 years before and 10 years after the election of Andrew Jackson and his doctrine of the “common man” to the presidency. Hume characterized pre-Jacksonian obituaries as favoring male subjects over female and as likely to feature heroes of the Revolutionary War as well as anyone associated with George Washington. One 1818 obituary of a 78-year-old veteran of the Revolution was captioned, “Another Patriot Gone” (p. 32). Hume found pioneer adventurers also popular, as were the extraordinary men characterized as “brave,” “noble,” and “heroic.” These early obituaries did not include funeral information because the funeral had already taken place by the time the obituary appeared in print. Hume points out that death imagery was framed in religious terms and presented as “calm,” “peaceful,” and “without struggle” (pp. 38-39).
Obituaries in the post-Jacksonian era were different, and some changes reflected the influx and influence of immigrants who were success stories as evidenced in the following:
One of the oldest and wealthiest citizens of New Orleans…a poor Scot who arrived …without a penny but by dint of industry, energy, and strict integrity succeeded in business, won the friendship of his fellow men and laid the foundation of the large fortune which he subsequently accumulated. (Hume 2000:43)
Christianity also prevailed over other attributes in the post-Jacksonian era; however, personal attributes of the deceased changed in citation from 1818 to 1839. No longer were loyalty, bravery, or gallantry as prevalent among the deceased, who were more likely to be described as benevolent, kind, and devoted to family. Women were more prominent in 1838 than earlier, but they were still described in language unlike that used to describe men. For example, those worthy of obituaries seemed to be unassuming, graceful, dignified, sweet, and “examples for others.” The few people of color were often described as a “friend of whites” or as “an example to others of the same class and color” (Hume 2000:46).
The cause of death was given more attention in 1938 than in 1818 obituaries, perhaps because of the sweep of many contagious diseases and perhaps because the cause was more likely to be known with the progress of family medical care. Fear of death or willingness to express fear of death was evident in the obituaries, where death was frequently described as the “King of Terrors.” Yet obituaries still reflected a religious theme. For example, one woman in 1838 was described as a “beautiful illustration of the blessed principles of Christianity” (Hume 2000:45).
Perhaps ambivalence was what actually characterized attitudes toward death and consequently framed obituaries in the second quarter of the 19th century. One woman was said to have been “cut down by the strong arm of death and hurried to an early grave,…[but she] winged her flight to the mansions of eternal repose” (p. 48). Obituaries of this era were also public expressions of bereavement, especially for those who died too soon or of no apparent cause. One obituary lamented the brevity of life for a young woman: “Within the short period of a year she was bride, a beloved wife and companion, a mother, a corpse! … She sparkled, was exhal’d, and went to heaven” (p. 49).
Obituaries in the post-Jacksonian era became the first to routinely announce the time and place of funerals and to show a decrease in reporting the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. Hume (2000) said of this era that obituaries “resonated in American consciousness showing a society that increasingly valued the everyday citizen” and a society struggling with the loss felt when that everyday citizen met the “King of Terrors.” However, the “everyday citizen” did not include women in representative numbers, Native Americans, or African Americans (pp. 50-51).
Although it has not been true historically, in the United States today, and in some other countries as well, obituaries are for all the people. Indeed, they may be symbolic of the leveling experience of death in societies where inequality is prevalent in life. Research by social scientists in recent years suggests that obituaries are now very close to approximating the actual vital statistics of death (Marks and Piggee 1998). In the United States, the widespread use of obituaries in the 20th century to announce the death of those from low to high stations in life is a result of several forces at work: the accessibility and affordability of the print and, more recently, the electronic media; the ideology of the common man/woman; the growth of the funeral industry; attitudes toward death; and the social framing of death.
The Production of Obituaries
Obituaries are largely a product of the print media, although they may be of different authorship and can be found today in at least five different venues: (a) local or regional newspapers (either dailies or those with less frequent publication), (b) national magazines or national newspapers (e.g., Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today), (c) trade and professional publications, (d) local flyers printed for distribution and posting, and (e) online Web sites—some maintained for and by specific organizations (including some newspapers), others available for postings by the public.
Local or regional newspapers are the most familiar venue for obituaries. Newspaper obituaries generally appear in a section of the paper titled “Obituaries/Death Notices/Funerals.” Except for news stories written by journalists about prominent national or local figures, the standard obituary or death notices are largely written according to a formula by funeral home personnel with information provided by family members or survivors. In some cases, individuals have written their own obituaries prior to death. Most newspapers assign editorial responsibility for these death notices to section editors, and a certain number are routinely verified by random calls to funeral homes.
Clearly, local papers treat obituaries as a service to their readers; however, they are also recognized as being read widely and with regularity. Brent and Greenwald (1991) reported that “the obituary section is among the most well-read in the newspaper, and causes of death and the stories profiling the obituaries’ subjects offer a capsulized version of society’s lifestyles and values” (p. 6).
Surveys of national newspaper-reading habits, conducted in the early and late 1980s, found that approximately half of readers reported that they regularly read the obituaries (Winick 1996:148). Some papers run obituaries or death notices free of cost, but typically, there is a cost per line or column (usually not more than $2-$3 per line) with an additional charge if a photograph is published with the obituary. Some papers have now put the obituary section of their papers online, even before other sections of the paper. Some recent print obituaries include Web page addresses, offered by the funeral home, that allow online “visitation.” Thus the traditional print obituary is linking with the new electronic medium to allow “callers” to register their names and a message of sympathy for the survivors.
There is a substantial difference in obituaries that appear in local papers and those that appear in national or international publications. Kearl (1986) captured this difference when he pointed out that “local obituaries are the social register of the middle class while national obituaries are the social register of the corporate elite” (p. 67). Regardless of the differences, national magazines or national newspapers are also familiar contexts for obituaries. Some, although not all, periodicals have a regular section of death notices. Those whose deaths are published, however, are likely to be public figures recognized by a substantial segment of the readership. National publications carry longer, more in-depth obituaries of well-known persons that are written by journalists, with editors deciding who is eligible for how much coverage. Indeed, the background data that will become a part of the obituaries of prominent public figures are often written well in advance of their deaths. Who gets how much space in death is determined by the other news of the day, by the volume of advertising, and by “news holes” that create unexpected (sometimes last minute) available space that needs to be filled (Winick 1996).
Journalists and other writers for national and international publications rely heavily on what are known in the trade as “canned obituaries.” These are obituaries for prominent persons or celebrities written in advance of their deaths and filed away for ready access and quick completion when the public figure dies. Most national newspapers keep such “pre-obituaries” in their files. Since the growth and accessibility of online Web pages, however, journalists rely less on their own file cabinets and more on electronic files. Even in the event of unexpected or early deaths, such as with the Princess Diana, journalists can access the biographical facts needed for an obituary from a number of Web sites. For example, the Facts on File World News data base has a Key People link (for subscribers) where hundreds of public personalities can be accessed alphabetically. One click will bring vital statistics, education, career highlights, family, and for most, a picture that can be downloaded. Other sources are open to all Internet users. For example, Biography.com allows the user to “search over 25,000 of the greatest lives, past and present.” A similar site is Biographical Dictionary (www.s9.com/biography), primarily an educational tool where anyone can learn about “more than 28,000 notable men and women who have shaped the world from ancient times to the present.” Most university libraries are also good sources of online biographical and obituary data, and some, such as the University of Chicago, provide links to major sources of biographical data and are especially helpful in providing sources of data on selected groups (see www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/edu/people.html). For example, Stanford University’s library Web page provides active links to information on African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Chicano/Latino populations, and women (www-sul. Stanford.edu/depts/ssrg/kkerns/ biograph.html).
Trade or Professional Publications
Professional associations, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, and trade journals in business and industry frequently feature obituaries in one of their publications. Because these publications usually appear quarterly to monthly, however, the editors must be selective in including those among their membership or profession worthy of inclusion. Kinnier and Mertha (1994), for example, found that the American Psychologist used an advisory committee and section editor to establish criteria when they decided to begin publishing obituaries in that journal. The criteria favored psychologists known for their accomplishments and, not surprisingly, led them to publish obituaries of white, American-born males who had a long list of publications and an ongoing affiliation with academia. Trade and professional publications often invite colleagues or associates to write obituaries that are then edited for publication. In academic publications, it is customary for former students to write the obituary when a well-known professor dies. The American Sociologist, for example, does not routinely publish obituaries but will, with no particular regularity, publish what amount to obituaries in the form of “contributions to the discipline” essays written by former students or colleagues (see, e.g., Yamane and Park 1977; Manning 2000).
Funeral flyers, cards, or other publicly posted announcements distributed locally are produced in much the same way as newspaper obituaries, written by funeral directors based on information provided by family members or survivors. In some underdeveloped areas, however, these are handwritten or individually produced and hand distributed. Such announcements are still used in areas where newspapers are not published daily, are not readily accessible or affordable, or do not serve as a medium for notification of death.
Recently emerging and burgeoning, electronic obituaries are apparently products of a wide authorship. The World Wide Web is responsible for changes in obituaries and obituary postings, and more changes are underway. One search (using Internet Explorer for a refined search), using the general term obituaries, yielded 240 Web sites. These sites fell overwhelmingly into two categories: (a) newspapers that include obituary sections as a regular feature and (b) sites for use by persons doing genealogy research. In the case of the former, direct links to some daily papers or other news publications allow submission of an obituary on line. Other papers state that they must receive the required information from a funeral director. For example, the Anchorage Daily News provides readers with a list of nine items to be provided in order to submit an obituary that will be published as a public service free of charge. The information, however, must be submitted to the funeral home, which will, in turn, submit it to the paper.
An assortment of other miscellaneous Web sites includes an array of helpful tools for writing obituaries. Some random selections include a page from a professor’s basic journalism class on “how to write obituaries” (www.northern.edu/hastingw/obits.html) and a “Style and Usage Guide” to writing obituaries provided by the Colorado Post-News Marketplace Memorial Links (www.postnewsads.com/legacy/writememorial.html). The Freep Academy’s “Link to Newspaper Careers” provides a series of questions to guide journalists in writing “lively obituaries” (www.freep.com/jobspage/academy/obits.htm). In a column found in the archives of the Tri-City Herald, Terence Day (1996), genealogist and journalist, effectively links genealogical research and obituaries. Day also laments the dysfunctional impact, for genealogists, of newspapers’ charging for obituaries. Cost rather than essential documentation of a life may determine the length of an obituary.
Many obituaries these days don’t provide some of the basic information sought by genealogists. Often, vital information is missing, either because nonjournalists don’t know the essentials of a good obituary or because the family couldn’t afford to publish all the information that should be included.
Another Web site, The National Obituary Archive (NOA at www.arrangeonline.com/HomePage.asp), boasting over 55 million records, appears to be a partnership between funeral directors and America Online (AOL), although the home page tells viewers that international news organizations and the Social Security Administration are also sources of data. The NOA introduces their obituary service as follows: “With the advent of the World Wide Web, the age-old death announcement has grown from a briefly noted farewell to an enduring multifaceted memorial” (see www.arrangeonline.com/obituary). Other information invites participants to add tributes to an already-written obituary, to add a favorite snapshot, or a guest book entry. Yet another Web site stands out by its name, The City of the Silent (www.alsirat.com/silence), and purports to commemorate the dead in a “celebration of the life.” Their obituary page offers the philosophy that “obituaries should not make us feel sadder than we are already over the loss of a friend, but more joyous for having known that such a person as this walked among us” (http://gazissax.best.vwh.net/silence/obit.html).
The City of the Silent allows the public to post obituaries and also provides links to newspapers that feature daily obituaries. Some Web sites not only allow the posting of obituaries but also provide for chat rooms, postings, or both about death in general. Some also provide answers to questions about whether a “beloved celebrity” is still alive. For example, Alt.obituaries, maintained as a service of Newsgroup Information Center (NIC), seems to serve all of these functions for its subscribers (www.bauser.com/news.groups.reviews/alt.obituaries/1.html). Yet another Web site, The Obituary Daily Times (www.rootsweb. com/~obituary), now includes almost 9 million postings and is simply a daily electronic record of obituaries from across North America. All these media sources inform certain constituencies or the public at large about the deaths of persons who may simply have lived in the same communities or of certain prominent individuals whose accomplishments made them of interest to the nation and perhaps to the world.
Obituaries are the source and subject of considerable research. Kearl (1986), for example, reviewed the various disciplines that have used “funerary artifacts” to study “the social organization of life.” Kearl himself found obituary analyses “theoretically fertile,” especially for gerontologists and life span researchers (p. 77). Obituaries are a response to the natural frame of death. They allow the living to socially frame death, to acknowledge a life lived and to move on with their own lives. In fact, it is not uncommon for obituaries to offer messages of hope for the living, typically in a religious or spiritual frame. Some religions are centrally focused on beliefs about life after death and about beliefs in a hereafter void of problems, sins, illnesses, or inequality. Yet despite these beliefs, all people everywhere meet the phenomenon of death with some trepidation and with some sadness brought on by the loss of a loved one. Such human emotions no doubt explain the fact that as much as obituaries are abbreviated biographies, they also, not uncommonly, frame promises that death is not the end. Such social frames help the living, those who survive the deceased, and those who simply need to offer encouragement and support following what appears to be a final and natural life frame.