An obituary, from the Latin ‘Obitus’ meaning ‘Death’, is traditionally a newspaper article reporting the passing of someone of note. In national and regional newspapers, obituaries are most often written for celebrities, politicians and other leading public figures.
Modern obituaries focus on the lives lived by the deceased, listing the highlights of their lifetime and marking their accomplishments, often closing with the briefest description of the subject’s passing. But in the 19th century, obituary writers did not spare their readers from the gruesome details of the death being described. The New York Times’ obit for President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have included a vivid description of how he was killed by blood clots.
Modern newspapers and TV companies often prepare obituaries well in advance of the death of public figures, allowing them to publish highly detailed memorials very quickly after a death is first reported. The LA Times’ obituary for actress Elizabeth Taylor was initially written over a decade before she died in 2011.
The art of the obituary
Being prepared for the inevitable may make for efficient publishing but it has its risks; the day Prince Philip retired the Telegraph inadvertently published a holding page reporting The Duke of Edinburgh’s death.
This mishap aside, The Telegraph’s obituary column is famous for pioneering a new style of reporting the deaths, and lives, of some of the most famous people in the UK. The newspaper has made such an artform of the memorial notice that it has published a series of books that collect together the best of the paper’s obituary columns.
In a recent article about the daily obituary page, its editor Andrew M. Brown explains that the section was introduced in the mid 80s , “to refresh and subvert the obituary’s traditionally stolid form by producing vivid, colourful, funny and truthful mini-biographies.”
According to Mr Brown, the Telegraph, joined by the Independent, began to publish obituaries for people who might not have been thought worthy of such treatment before. He says these have included cattle breeders, gun makers, graffiti artists and puppeteers.
Memorials from friends and family
As well as providing a memorial for someone deceased and an insight into their life, an obituary can be a good way to tell people about a recent death and share details of funeral services. In smaller local papers, friends and family often pay to place an obituary for a loved one who has passed.
Obituaries differ from more straightforward death notices in that, alongside details of the death and possibly information about the funeral service, they will also say something about the life of the deceased.
Like preparing a eulogy, writing an obituary for a loved one takes some thought. While announcing the death and personal details in an obituary – time and place of death, age, area – it should also include biographical information about the person who has died, spanning their life from birth, through education, marriage, work and retirement.
The difficult part is including relevant information without becoming boring. Avoiding chronological lists and including personal anecdotes helps. Tributes from friends and family can also be included, but less is often more with a few well-chosen words of affection counting for more than long, gushing memorials.