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History of Obituaries

The first known obituaries were published in ancient Rome, starting around 59 B.C. These were mainly just death notices of prominent people, and they were written on papyrus and distributed. This practice continued in Europe after the fall of Rome, but it wasn’t until the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press in 1439 that newspapers became widespread. Death notices were included in newspapers in Europe and eventually the Americas, but since the typing was set by hand, space was limited. The death notices were kept brief and were still exclusively about prominent people.

By the mid 19th century, newspapers in the United States were regularly publishing death notices submitted by local funeral homes. This practice increased during the Civil War, when newspapers printed the deaths of soldiers so families could be notified. Most of these soldiers were young, and the papers began including brief facts about them, including their ages and marriages. These notices often lamented the fact that these men were so young.

During this time, many children died from now-preventable diseases. When death notices were published for children, they often included a piece of poetry or a short tribute. Death notices for adults were kept short and factual.

In the 1880’s the Linotype press was invented, which allowed printers to print their papers automatically. This allowed more space for death notices. Newspapers charged a fee to publish obituaries, and printers realized there was money to be made.

With this expansion, modern obituaries began to take shape in the 1930s and 1940s. These death notices began to include the structure that is familiar today: the death announcement, a short biography, the “survived by” section, and the funeral information. Some obituaries included pictures of the deceased.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Times published narrative obituaries of the people who lost their lives. Each one included anecdotes about the person. This may have started the trend toward obituaries being more open and honest about the person, portraying them as real people rather than just simple, dry death notices.

Obituaries are now more likely to be posted online or shared on social media, allowing even more room for personal details and anecdotes.


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