Obituaries are the most common way for us to become informed about deaths that occur in our communities. In most periodicals, the terms “obituary” (derived from the Latin word for death, “obitus”) and “death notice” have come to be used synonymously.
Not all obituaries are the same, however. In larger daily papers such as the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, there are two very different kinds of obituary notice. One is included in the classified ads section and is paid for by the family of the deceased. The other is a longer story that is written by a journalist and published as news.
In one form or another, the obituary has been around since Europeans first settled in America. All the same, its purpose has changed little over time. Regardless of how it is printed, the obituary has three goals:
1.) To announce that somebody has died. This can be as simple as giving the person’s name and date of death.
2.) To allow the community to identify the person. This is accomplished by listing both survivors and those who preceded the person in death; by mentioning the person’s life accomplishments, place of employment, and affiliations with church and civic organizations; and, sometimes, by including a photograph.
3.) To inform the community about memorial services. Ultimately, the community needs the service details so that they can offer their sympathy and condolences.
The announcement of a death in our community can take many forms, from the spoken word to the printed word to the digital word. Much of the information we receive now comes in digital form. With the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, it is fair to assume that the printed obituary notice will become less relevant in the future. But we will always need a form of death notice. It used to be as simple as placing a black cloth on the outside of the door to one’s home. In the future, it may be as simple as posting on one’s “wall”.