The Anthropology of Obituaries

In a writing class when I was a freshman in college, the instructor asked us to write our own obituaries as an exercise in autobiography.  It caused me to reflect upon what I would want people to remember about me if I were to suddenly turn up dead, and it also tuned me in to this obscure but interesting part of the daily newspaper.  We can discern different things from a few paragraphs, including what constitutes a life well-lived and how a community thinks of death.

I live now in a town which is over 50% African-American, and several times a week I will see an obituary like this:

Last Tuesday at the family home, Mr. So and So passed from this life into the loving arms of Jesus.  At the time of his passing he was surrounded by family members who sung Precious Memories, How They Linger.

I find that I am a little bit envious of Mr. So and So, especially since it is becoming more and more likely that another Mr. So and So will die on a stainless steel table under bright lights, naked and stripped of his religious vestments, surrounded by complete strangers who poke and prod his carcass and shout “He’s flatlining!  WE’RE LOSING HIM!”, even as they apply the jumper cables to his chest.

I recently spent some time in Utah and while I was there, I read the obits in 5 different papers, from the Salt Lake City dailies to small town weeklies.  Here are some observations from a very random and unscientific sampling:

  • Catholic people mention Jesus and God in their obituaries.  LDS people mention church and family.
  • In rural Utah, cooking is apparently something a woman should be proud of, since every obituary of a woman I saw mentioned how much her family and her ward enjoyed her cooking.
  • In rural Utah, it is very important that a man hunt and fish, and teach his sons to do the same.  A man’s obit will overlook educational achievement, career, mission and military service, but the fact that he knew how to gut a deer and passed that skill along to his sons (no mention is made of daughters) is something they are proud of.  One even cataloged the biggest deer the man had “harvested”, as measured by number of antler points.
  • Even 120 years after the Manifesto, polygamy is still very much with us.  One man had outlived three wives, and in the year or two before his death, he became active in the church.  His obituary mentioned the day that he went to the temple and had all three women sealed to him.
  • The number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a point of pride for us.  Some obits mentioned all 42 of them by name.
  • We don’t quite know what to think about suicide.  There were two very short notices, literally only two lines in both cases, saying that someone who was born in the late 80s had passed away, and giving the date and time at which the funeral would be held at the stake center.
  • LDS people go to a viewing.  People who are not LDS go to a visitation.
  • There were two obits which announced the passing of a person and instead of a funeral gave notice that a celebration of that person’s life would be held.  One of these celebrations was planned in a tavern.  I assume the deceased was not LDS, but I think it would be nice if we could think in terms of celebration of life.

Do you read obituaries?  Have you found that they both reveal and reinforce community expectations?


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  1. I remember the old obits where a woman always gave clothes to the poor, but made sure they would freeze to death because she always cut the buttons out first (ok, that was supposed to show that she was charitable, but frugal).

  2. one of my favorite utah ones lately was for so and so, a “crafty lady.” it was her big headline, and i’m pretty sure they meant she liked crafts, but it made me laugh. another inspiring one was of a woman who had done the temple work for 30,000 people and it said they would be greeting her on the other side.
    i get intrigued by the mysterious family circumstances they hint at or curious demises, and find local obituaries (deseret news is my source) to be my favorite part of the paper some mornings.

  3. Garrison Keillor got his start writing obituaries (according to Garrison Keillor, who may not be the most reliable of sources.) He liked to add personal things like “Jim was a carpenter who took great care of his tools,” but he had to stop per editorial policy. Sad.

    Per editorial policy, my hometown paper does not print obituaries for suicides.

  4. StillConfused says:

    I wish they were all required to say the cause of death

  5. “Per editorial policy, my hometown paper does not print obituaries for suicides.”

    How sad. Do those people deserve to be any less fondly remembered than the rest of us? Especially when their death may have more than likely been the end of a terrible and often deadly disease called depression.

  6. living in zion says:

    I read the obits and I too, am annoyed when they don’t mention the cause of death. “Passing after a lingering illness” seems to mean cancer, based on how donations can be accepted to the local cancer society in the name of the deceased. I find it amazing how rare it is for people to die of old age, in their sleep.

    Where I live the most important people get an obit mention on the front page, then referenced to the full obit on the inner page. Important folks can get two/three columns detailing all the good works and clubs they belonged to. I think they dropped dead from exhaustion with all the committee work, etc.

    When I die I totally want a Celebration Of Life party. I say skip the church service and go straight to the fun. Unfortunately, my straight-laced Mormon husband has already informed me that will not happen and I will have a traditional, boring church funeral. I told him I won’t bother attending.
    He did agree to let me be cremated and my ashes scattered, instead of buried. That was easy to sway him on by showing the cost savings. We’ll always do the frugal thing.

  7. I just did some googling and apparently the policy has changed.

  8. How did you miss the category of “survived by his/her long time partner”? The name of the partner generally reveals whether the deceased was homosexual or living in heterosexual sin.

  9. re #7 glad to hear it. Compassion for the families in those sad circumstances are most likely greatly appreciated.

  10. April, at the time of the policy, I think the primary concern was copycat suicides by young people.

  11. CatherineWO says:

    I love to read obituaries. They tell such interesting stories, both about the person who died and the people who loved them (and presumably wrote the obituaries). Also, I have somehow become the family obituary writer and have done several in the past few years. The very act of writing the obituary is comforting to me, and I always try to write them in a way that will be comforting to particular family members who are mourning.
    Those very short obits you see may be that way because of cost constraints on a family. Most newspapers will publish what they call “death notices” for free, but a full obituary can be very expensive. When my dad died five years ago, the obituary cost over $600 (in the Deseret News & SL Tribune), and it was by no means an exceptionally long one.

  12. I am told that our local paper uses the phrase ‘died unexpectedly’ for suicides.

  13. Bruce Rogers says:

    I have been blessed twice with a wife whom the Lord called home. I was thankful for the time that I had with them, and expresed that in my funeral talk for each. I wtote the obituary in terms of the policy of the newspaper, which was brief, but respectful..

  14. nesquik405 says:

    The obits are a daily must-see for me. We’ve moved a lot and it’s how I learn about a town. They tell whether people grew up here or moved from elsewhere. They tell what people in the area did for a living (sometimes those industries have died out). They tell whether people go off to Ivy League schools, or Big State U, or straight to a welding career.

    Yep, LDS obits like to name every grandchild (I peek in on the Salt Lake or Boise papers now and then). But here in the Midwest, there’s a lot of “He went home to the Lord on Tuesday afternoon . . .” “He loved riding his motorcycle . . . threw barbecues for his many friends, who will miss him.”

    They are full of fascinating details and intriguing omissions.

    And, darn it, more people my age and even younger are keeling over. (Shivers slightly)

  15. My obituary for my dad will read, “His family takes solace in the fact that he died doing what he loved: handling guns in an unsafe manner.”

  16. I read an obituary a couple of months ago where the surviving daughters included a bit their mother wrote ahead of time. I can’t find it now, but it said something to the effect of “I don’t care what my daughters say, I was the kindest, friendliest, most generous person you would ever hope to meet.” The daughters claimed they had to include it or they would be disinherited.

    I really wish I had known that lady before she died.

  17. Is including a photo of the departed and their spouse (whether dead or alive) a uniquely Utah or SLC thing?

  18. My husband says he reads the obits every day to make sure he isn’t in them. If he doesn’t see his name, he goes ahead and gets dressed. He has a pretty common name and actually did see it once when we lived in Cali. We all got a good laugh out of that.

    The obits where we currently live have pictures of the deceased when he or she was young and they are always captioned ‘old photo’, as though we wouldn’t realize that an 80 year old women wouldn’t look like that.

  19. Interesting post. I helped write my dad’s obituary and (I just went back and checked) we described him as having “passed away” (vs. “died”) but we also listed the cause of death.

    For our family, a major concern in the obituary was that it express the gratitude we felt to the medical care providers and professional colleagues who performed so well/were so helpful. The obituary was a way that gave our family voice to a wide audience.

    One other anthropological tidbit about obituaries that I hadn’t thought of is what Ardis Parshall has mentioned before — obituaries serve the purpose of providing the family history detective all sorts of information on surviving/non-surviving names of extended family.

  20. When I was younger and delivered newspapers, I would scan the obituaries for people I knew (usually customers of mine). My mum would always read them, and sometimes tell me about the people she knew in the community who had passed away.

    Nowadays, though, I rarely see a newspaper, so I even more rarely see the obits. An uncle of a friend recently passed away, though, and I was sent a copy of the obituary which, apparently, is sent in by the funeral home.

    I always feel sad when the obit just says “Mr. So and So was born at such and such place on such and such day, and passed away in a hospital on this recent day. He went to this school, and did this for work.

    I always want to know what else he did. Surely his life was not defined by his post-secondary education and his career (sometimes related, sometimes not). Which is why, I suppose, I am so glad that, in this case, my friend’s father included a line about the uncle’s hobbies.

    I wonder… can I go back to school and major in Obituarial Anthropology?

  21. The process of charging the family for obituaries as opposed to death notices has been a relatively recent one. The interesting part is that now since the family is essentially purchasing advertising space in the newspaper, they get to say what they want. It used to be that phrases like “passed away” or “died” were what the obit editor would allow. Now that the family pays the bill, they get to include phrases like “went home to the loving arms of her Heavenly Father and elder brother Jesus Christ”, or “slipped into eternal rest and now sings with the angelic choir”.

  22. living in zion says:

    When my brother died at 33 years old from a brain tumor, the newspaper asked me what his occupation was for his obit. I was stumped because my brother was developmentally delayed and never had an occupation.

    I explained he never had a career and the newspaper obit lady said, “Well, that won’t do. I have to have an stated occupation or I can’t run the obit.” I remembered a few years before my brother did a get-rich-quick scheme selling plasticized roof coating for mobile homes. He sold a whole gallon of the stuff. The newspaper lady agreed that experience qualified Rex’s obit to read, “He was a salesman for an oil company.”

    I hope that doesn’t screw up Obituary Anthropologists too much.

  23. Bruce Rogers says:

    RE: post 22. The writer should have contacted the editor and publisher of the newspaper. The obit lady was clearly imcompetent and did a great disservice to her newspaper. I read the obits each day and there are some for whom an occupation is not listed. My mother did not work, and I did not list an occupation when I wrote her obituary.

  24. Regarding your last suggestion (celebration of life), I really liked this approach mentioned by Mommie Dearest on fMh a couple of years ago:

    The best funeral I ever attended was a Quaker one, for a friend who lived a long and well-fulfilled life. It was actually a memorial service held about a month after his death. We all sat in a large room with the chairs in a circle; actually two concentric “ovals” in order to fit everyone. His son officiated, introducing the concept of a Quaker funeral. It was exactly like testimony meeting, except the topic was memories of our friend. It was lovely and incredibly varied, and blessed with the Spirit, and after a couple of hours whizzed by, he closed the meeting and we all adjourned to the kitchen and the garden where we ate cookies and visited.

  25. I find this whole conversation an interesting study in religious Anthropology.

    A friend of ours had a deathly ill mother who was very scared to die. While I’m not hastening death, I’m not so scared as to want every invasive procedure available accompanied by intense pain. (Give me a minute to write my obit and then pull the plug!) It seems as though people who are comfortable enough to discuss death and obits may be free enough to live life without fear as well.

  26. My husband and I wrote an obituary for our two year old daughter and we were actually lectured by his father because we “didn’t do it right”. Apparently it is necessary to list all surviving relatives, we only listed ourselves and our son, so when others read it they would know who she was. I had no idea there were so many rules and so many people just read them.

  27. “It seems as though people who are comfortable enough to discuss death and obits may be free enough to live life without fear as well.”

    Whoah, jendoop. That was deep.

  28. Bruce Rogers says:

    To #26. In our newspaper, it is common to list parents, grandparents, and children, if they are living.