The art and standards of obituaries, reflecting current traditions
June 18, 2018 10:23 AM   Subscribe

"She will not be missed" is a brutal phrase to read in an obituary, but leads to the question: how have obits changed in recent time? Susan Soper has a theory: "after 9/11 when The New York Times wrote those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, thousands of very short, poignant obituaries in their pages ... that was sort of when the tide turned in obituaries and people realized that you could bring a person to life and keep them alive in even a short written bio, really." And many taboo topics, like children born out of wedlock, drug use and suicide, are less of taboos than they used to be [content warning].

In 2007, Holly Shreve Gilbert wrote A Brief History of the Obituary for the Funeral Consumers Information Society, a Michigan affiliate of Funeral Consumers Alliance; here are some links augmenting and expanding that article: Recently rectifying stark lack of gender and racial diversity in its obituaries, NYT recently started a series called Overlooked -- Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we’re adding the stories of other remarkable people. (Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett, March 8, 2018)
Obituary writing is more about life than death: the last word, a testament to a human contribution.

Yet who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.

Charlotte Brontë wrote “Jane Eyre”; Emily Warren Roebling oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill; Madhubala transfixed Bollywood; Ida B. Wells campaigned against lynching. Yet all of their deaths went unremarked in our pages, until now.

Below you’ll find obituaries for these and others who left indelible marks but were nonetheless overlooked. We’ll be adding to this collection each week, as Overlooked becomes a regular feature in the obituaries section, and expanding our lens beyond women.
But we still haven't gotten to the point of how people are remembered. As recounted by Kate Sweeney in her book American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning (Goodreads; Amazon; Google Books preview),
In the nineteenth century, just getting through one's day posed a higher risk than it does now. Farm work, factory work, and childbirth all held their peril. But the stealthiest killer, which made it a feat even to survive childhood, was disease.
People were well-acquainted with death, until modern medicine and science increased the average life expectancy from 47 to 78.8 years in the U.S., and with it, making the topic of death itself taboo. That's changing, slowly but surely, and with it, how we write about the dead.

Writing negatively about the dead is generally a taboo, but writing about drug-related deaths, particularly opioids, is becoming a way to talk about the issue, as seen in 52 weeks, 52 faces, "Obituaries narrate lives lost to the opioid epidemic" by David Armstrong for STAT News. Mentions of suicide were once kept out of print, but an obituary can be a chance to talk about depression and mental health.

On the generally more positive end, children born out of wedlock, once excluded from obituaries, are now included as those children are welcomed into the family.

And a parting link with much more: Death Indexes is an index of many more resources, particularly of death records and cemetery indexes, for the 50 United States, plus Washington D.C. and specific pages for Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles New York City, and St. Louis death records.
posted by filthy light thief (30 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
It is a very minor part of the framing of this excellent post, but I have to take exception with the very first link.

That obit reflects more spite and hatred from the writer of the obit than it does with its subject. It’s understandable that a child might feel betrayed and abandoned by a parent that had an affair, followed by divorce and remarriage. It happened in my own family, and I know the dynamics all too well.

But harboring the grudge for 56 years, to the point of penning such a poisonous obituary? I feel sorry for the kids that, despite being in advanced years themselves, still haven’t constructively dealt with and gotten beyond their feelings of betrayal and hatred toward their mom.

Notwithstanding all that, this is an awesome post on a fascinating subject. I look forward to reading the other links.
posted by darkstar at 10:50 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Great post.
Perhaps this is an appropriate place to share an obituary that means a fair bit to me.
"Tony Cliff was born Ygael Gluckstein, the son of a Zionist building contractor, in Palestine, in May 1917, in between the great Russian revolutions. He was speedily converted out of Zionism by observing the treatment of Arab children. Aged 13, he wrote in a school essay: "It is so sad that there are no Arab kids in the school." The teacher scrawled across the page the single word: "Communist"."
As the obit says, "Don't mourn, organise!" was allegedly one of his favourite slogans. It may ring a few bells for some.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 10:52 AM on June 18, 2018 [10 favorites]

It is a very minor part of the framing of this excellent post, but I have to take exception with the very first link.

How can you take exception with someone else's feelings, especially when you don't even know that person? People are entitled to feel whatever they want about their own lives and the people in (or not in) them.

Great post, FLT.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:52 AM on June 18, 2018 [26 favorites]

We take exception to others’ feelings all the time, if it causes them to do something we find objectionable. I mean, you just did it, yourself.

Anyway, it’s probably a derail to further discuss that particular point, so I won’t belabor it,
posted by darkstar at 10:54 AM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it's important to differentiate paid death notices, which have been used for score settling in the past, and the practices of journalistic obituary writing.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:04 AM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Can I just put in a plug for the Virtual Memorial Garden. The very first internet memorial site. Free and still running since 1995, though currently a little overgrown. The gardeners will be round soon though.
posted by rivets at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

It is a very minor part of the framing of this excellent post, but I have to take exception with the very first link.

That obit went viral (Twitter with various screencaps) for its anger, then was pulled by the Redwood Falls Gazette (search for "Dehmlow" with no matches for Kathleen Dehmlow (Schunk)) and apparently pulled from (found via Duck Duck Go with text snippet that implies it's the right page, but it's 404 not found if you follow the link), but lead to the NPR piece that lead me to make this post.

I also I feel awful for those adult children who kept such anger for so long, but I find it interesting that the local paper allowed the family to run that obit, which is in line with the general idea that obituary taboos are generally going away, and I find that interesting from a detached perspective.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:10 AM on June 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

It's impossible for me to read this FPP and not think of my mother. Mom was a public librarian in Iowa and one of her jobs was cataloging the obits from the Ames Tribune. She loved the obit as a writing form, and would often read them to me when I was a teenager, particularly if they involved something personal or, similar to this viral one linked here, included anything critical. This January after a terrible year suffering from a disease that cruelly wrecked her mind before also killing her body, I wrote hers.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:21 AM on June 18, 2018 [30 favorites]

I have used obituaries, both paid and journalistic, as a starting place for research quite a bit. There is a whole category of obit that has come up a lot for me, specifically about the art world in New York in the 80s: the unacknowledged death of AIDS complications. I don't have a good example saved, but the coded references and omissions were often very clear to me, and they made me so sad.

Recently I have been glad to follow the Instagram account The AIDS Memorial. It feels like a way to rectify some of those gaps, and I have been so grateful for the people who share stories there.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:22 AM on June 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

The British newspapers have been writing livelier obituaries since the 1980s.

I used to have to write obituaries for an alumni directory, based on their previous submissions to said directory. There was a very strict house style; regardless of what was in those submissions, they all read the same.
posted by praemunire at 11:32 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Great post! A big part of my thesis research involved combing through obituaries in various 19th and early 20th century publications. If you're researching Black Americans in that period, there's almost nothing written about their lives. Sometimes an obituary, if there was one, is the only record of a person's whole life, besides maybe a federal census. Sometimes a person's whole life would be summed up only by a description of the cause of their death, or by the name of their spouse and children.

I'm very fond of the memorial letters people would send in to certain publications that would reprint them. The official publication of the US military in the 19th century was the United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces (it changed names many times, and was most recently the Armed Forces Journal). There was a small section at the back reserved for obituaries and memorials, which was generally concerned with the deaths of white officers (there were no black officers until 1877). Black soldiers could write in, though, and sometimes a letter from a group of black soldiers would appear alongside obituaries for officers. Often these would be very formal, summarizing a meeting of enlisted soldiers, and sharing the resolutions from that meeting: "we wish to express our sorrow at his loss, and our gratitude for his life," or something similar.

Later on, there was a newsletter from the 20s to the 40s called Winners of the West, which was a publication of the National Indian War Veterans Association. The basic purpose of the newsletter was to advocate for increased pensions for veterans of the Indian Wars. Functionally, though, it also served to unite veterans as a community in ways that cut across racial lines, even during Jim Crow. There would be some short essays by a few people (often along the lines of "if we keep fighting, we WILL secure fair pensions!"), but most of the content was mailed in by subscribers. There was a section in every newsletter called "Taps," which listed, at a minimum, the names of any veterans who had died. Because these were usually submitted by other veterans, there was sometimes a little more information about them, like what company they'd been in, or even a short message. I don't have one at hand, but sometimes you'd see messages about how much the veteran had been a valued comrade and friend, and how he would be greatly missed.

Obviously the Indian Wars are problematic, but for the veterans, especially for the former black soldiers, it became a unifying identity they could all share. Black and white veterans' names appeared alongside each other, with no one's appearing before the other's for any particular reason. That's not insignificant.

Also, slightly related, but this reminds me of one of my very favorite books, Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon. Three-sentence descriptions of human tragedy that have a certain poetry to them.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:37 AM on June 18, 2018 [14 favorites]

mcstayinskool - that is a lovely obituary. It is a wonderful testament to the life your mother lived; she seems like a really wonderful woman.
posted by hepta at 11:41 AM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Another 21st century trend in obituaries is mentioning pets as survivors. Pets are now members of the family in a way they were not in earlier times, so, as bereaved family, they get a mention. My dad wasn't survived by any pets (just grandkitties, and they didn't get a mention, sorry feline overlords!) but I had to mention how much he loved his previous dogs when I wrote his obituary.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:03 PM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

The obit in the first link is depressing. It indicates that the adult children have never healed. It's not a great way to live.
posted by JamesBay at 12:14 PM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

There will always be the obit she wrote for herself...Jane C. Lotter. Those were better days.
posted by Freedomboy at 12:19 PM on June 18, 2018

I've been a regular obituary reader for years, and have seen many patterns change as described--mentioning pets as survivors is a big one (especially for me; I would not be happy if my cats were not included in my obituary). The other one that I've been seeing over the past ten years or so, very happily, is gay children/other relatives and their partners (now, increasingly, spouses) acknowledged as family.

Of course, there are still some newspapers that are assholes about that, but I'm hoping they're a dying breed (pun intended).
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:28 PM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is my favourite obituary - I knew Mr Grayson when I worked for the Inns of Court and he was a delight then. We were very sad when he passed away but we cried with laughter reading that obit when it came out and it added so much to someone who was already a library character.
posted by halcyonday at 12:43 PM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Allow me to echo the calls of 'great post' from further up. The only resource that I didn't see linked above is obituarist Marilyn Johnson's great book The Dead Beat. which is hilarious and fascinating, sort of in a Mary Roach mold, I'd say. She talks early on about being at the grandly named Sixth Great Obituary Writer's International Conference, an event which attracts all the great newspapers' obituary writers (a few dozen people), held that year in Las Vegas, New Mexico (pop. 13,573). There are great recountings of the worries of obituary writers that while they were at this conference that a Princess Diana event would occur, where someone relatively young and active would die suddenly when there might not be a pre-written obit to publish, and of course the gallows humour of what would happen if some natural disaster in northwestern new Mexico were to wipe out the obituarists themselves.

She mentions that Ronald Reagan died during the last day of their conference. I will let her recount the other big news on that day:
A few of the writers hurry to catch a plane out of Santa Fe; the rest turn the lively bar raucous. The other event of the day is happening at the Belmont Stakes, where Smarty Jones is getting ready to run for the Triple Crown (and where we learn later, the announcement of Reagan's death to the clubhouse began soberly, "Ladies and gentlemen..." horrifying the racing fans, who thought something had happened to the horse).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:54 PM on June 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

Another 21st century trend in obituaries is mentioning pets as survivors.

Not to mention obituaries (or at least memorials) for the pets themselves. (Hopefully I'm not the only member, agnostic or otherwise, who can't read their poem without getting misty-eyed).
posted by gtrwolf at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

BBC Radio 4 has a programme called "Last Word" which is obituaries on the radio. I don't usually read obituaries but I find when I catch this programme it's surprisingly fascinating and usually grabs my attention.
posted by Stark at 3:35 PM on June 18, 2018

Although they'd been long divorced, it was my mother who wrote my father's obituary after he ODed in January of 2016. (So it would have fit right into 52 weeks, 52 faces.)

It turns out it costs quite a bit to publish an obituary in the paper and my brother and I didn't have the money after cleaning up some of the mess my dad left behind so we refused to pay for one.

Also, we'd allowed ourselves to get burnt out by his addiction and narcissism and anything we wrote right then would have been either untrue or bitter. Despite his many failings as a father, I didn't hate him. I honestly think he did the best he could, and there were parts of him that I wish were still around- for instance, the younger, slightly soberer Dad would have been on a theatrically righteous warpath against the Trump administration that would have been great to watch.

At any rate, I'm glad his obituary turns out to have been part of a trend because addiction can be isolating. Maybe getting everything out in the open will help that.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:16 PM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

The British newspapers have been writing livelier obituaries since the 1980s.

True. Example:

The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke, is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:57 PM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was born Ricochet Middlename Biscuit and have gone by Middlename most of my life, although my family all still refer to me as Ricochet. That is fine.

My grandmother Biscuit's obit listed survivors with the usual parenthetical format for spouses: you know, "survived by son Son (Daughter-in-Law), daughter Daughter (Son-in-Law)" and so forth. My generation got "granddaughter Granddaughter (Grandson-in-Law)" if married or "grandson Grandson" if single.

With me, as I was merely engaged then and not yet married to my wife, I was listed as "grandson Ricochet (Middlename)." So I imagine a number of people who knew our family slightly read that and thought, "oh, Ricochet is married to a man now -- that's nice for him!"

posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:07 PM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not to mention obituaries (or at least memorials) for the pets themselves.

Lord Byron set the standard for pet memorials in 1808.
posted by TedW at 2:27 AM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

While looking for information on my family on the internet, I found a striking example of how obituaries reflect the social values of their time and place. Callie Boyd King was my great-grandmother, and her obituary is a nice summation of her life and activities in her community. Yet not once in 8 paragraphs is her full name mentioned. She is only referred to as “Mrs. Felix J. King” or “Mrs. King” throughout. This extends to her sister and six daughters, all of whom are only mentioned by their husbands’ names. The only female relative mentioned by her own name is a foster daughter, who had become a nun.
posted by TedW at 2:51 AM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

What a post! One of my favourites this year so far.

It didn't occur to me until I saw her obit linked above that I didn't know much about Charlotte Bronte's life apart from that she was English, had two sisters, and they all wrote. To learn that she well outlived all five siblings to die at the age of 38 after only being married nine months! Jane Eyre is probably the book I've re-read the most in my life (I'm not sure I read anything else between ages 10-12), and after loving the book I always loved the names Charlotte and Bronte because I associated the elegance of her writing with her names.

Also, I just this morning recalled the #myozobituary thing (mefi thread) and it gave me a good laugh.

This is my favourite obituary
In addition he sat on an arbitration panel, produced drafts for parliamentary legislation on the safety of young persons and became a visiting professor at the Anglia Law School. Inevitably, with his enthusiasms, he had a short fuse, and would become particularly incensed with sports administrators, government ministers, and Dr Beeching, the closer of railway branch lines. According to legend, Grayson became so exasperated with one witness in a cross-examination that he accused him of being "a f***ing liar". When the judge interposed to insist that this description be rephrased, Grayson offered instead: "a lying f***er".
as did this.
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 6:27 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, that's about where the entire library staff (it was a very small group) fell about in hysterics.

About 6 months before he passed, he had a bit of a fight with one of our bound volumes of law reports and our photocopier and several pages had to be taped back together by us. It became the Grayson Memorial volume of the law reports to us.
posted by halcyonday at 8:10 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just came here to plug the LA Times Obit writers. A compelling read, each and every day.
posted by Fupped Duck at 7:45 PM on June 20, 2018

I've been a daily obituary reader for several decades--it's everyday history. Given the precarious condition of local newspapers, and that they charge per word for obits, the majority seem to be moving to funeral home websites. Will this info still be accessible to researchers in 100 years?

An excellent self-penned obituary by Kay A. Heggestad, M.D., a local-to-me-hero, begins:
MADISON - Kay Ann Heggestad, age 72, bought the farm, is no more, has ceased to be, left this world, is bereft of life, gave up the ghost, kicked the bucket, murió, c'est fini. She died on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, after a wimpy non-battle with multiple myeloma, a nasty bone marrow cancer, after almost two years to the date of diagnosis. No one should say she fought a courageous battle, because she did not! Unlike most folks, she complained all the way. What a whiner! She was ready to quit treatment many times but her family pushed her to continue, which was good since she then had time to have parties and say goodbye to friends and relatives.
It continues for another 1000 words. Her family was concerned that she was too self-deprecating, so they filed a "minority report."
posted by Jesse the K at 12:12 PM on June 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

posted by radwolf76 at 12:15 AM on June 25, 2018

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