From piety to prosperity: What obituary trends reveal about society's shifting values

What does the state of today’s obituaries say about life as we know it?

With a rise in particularly frank memorials, should we be worried?

Online technologies are allowing loved ones of the deceased to have their voice heard, changing how we're remembering our dead. ( Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Listen19:07

Read Story Transcript

We think of an obituary as a time capsule for a life — an individual life — but what do obituaries as a genre tell us about society more broadly?    

After reading and studying 8000 obituaries written between 1818 and 1930, Janice Hume, author of Obituaries in American Culture, says obituaries are windows into a society's shifting norms.

"They are reflections of our cultural values," Hume told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"We don't say the kind of cliches anymore as in 'confirmed bachelor' who 'enjoyed a drink or four," added Sandra Martin, who has written hundreds of obits for the Globe and Mail.

So what does the state of today's obituaries say about life as we know it?

Reciprocally, how have changes in form influenced how we memorialize our loved ones?

What word-use reveals

Turning the clocks back 200 years, obituaries were decorated with language that celebrated piety and good character, says Hume.

Men were remembered for being "patriarchal", "brave,""vigilant," "bold," "devoted to duty."

Women were remembered for being "patient," "resigned," "obedient," "affectionate," and "amicable."

"That reflects what society valued about life," Hume told The Current.

But as society moved into the 20th century, she says the frequency with which words of character appeared in obits dwindled, being usurped by verbs describing how rich someone was.

"Wealthy," "millionaire," "capitalist," saturated the mainstream newspapers.

Out with piety, in with prosperity.

"Headlines of obituaries often read in the early part of the 20th century, 'Career cut short.' Those headlines were even used for children, for boys, 'Career cut short,' — not, 'Child died,' Hume told The Current

"And so the way we remember people changed and ...the language of death also changed."

Frankly speaking

Sandra Martin says nowadays we've seen a certain frankness creeping into our written memorials.

A not-so-loving sendoff to Kathleen Dehmlow recently went viral, with her children, Gina and Jay, writing "this world is a better place without her," in a paid obituary.

Then there was Victoria native Karen Shirley, who wrote of her father George Ferguson, a United Church minister, that "no one could accuse him of having been a loving son, brother, or father."

"We are seeing more and more of them," said Hume of painfully honest obits, "but I still think they're quite the anomaly."

Martin chimes in that paid "revenge" memorials written by family members don't really constitute obituaries. She refers to these paid announcements as "death notices." 

 An obituary is written by a journalist and rooted in fact. 

"The difference between what I would do and what they did is that I would go and talk to other people. That's only one version of that person's life and I would always get as many versions as possible and then make a judgment."

Changes in technology

Martin says the greatest change in modern day obituaries is the speed in which they are produced and shared.

(Joy Von Tiedemann)

"The digital age means that there's a 24/7 news cycle, so you hear that you hear someone has died … And the first thing [you do is] tweet it… Then you get another version that goes in the paper and the version in the paper is always the shortest."

Hume agrees that shifting values is not the only influence over how we memorialize our dead.

She believes the greatest impact on obituaries as of late has been the addition of the comment section.

Loved ones can now add to the conversation, offering their own perspective. The obituary has become a living document that can capture intimate details that were impossible to gather before.

"They'll give them instructions say 'hello to Margaret for me' they will say 'I miss you.' They'll tell stories that nobody else understands but the person who is writing."

Before online interaction, obituaries were primarily focused on relationships with family and close loved ones, but comment sections also offer a space for other voices to say their piece.   

"You have co-workers coming online and grieving and telling stories. and then thanking the deceased for being a mentor, for example," Hume told The Current.

"And so I think the healthy part of the online obituaries, is this ability to share, to grieve, to build community, to tell those stories that help us process the death of someone who is close to us."

Listen to the full episode near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Willow Smith and Kristian Jebsen.