An obituary is an attempt to give an account of the texture and significance of the life of someone who has recently died. It is to be distinguished from a death notice (also known as a funeral notice), which is a paid advertisement written by family members and placed in the newspaper either by the family or the funeral home.

Many news organizations have on file pre-written obituaries for notable individuals who are still alive; allowing detailed, authoritative—and lengthy—obituaries to appear very quickly after these people die.


The first obituary is very difficult to trace, however many candidates are found at the advent and popularization of the printing press circa 1500s. The first obituaries were concise simply containing the deceased name, birth date, death date, and cause of death.

During the late 1800s John Thadeus Delane, an English editor of the London paper "The Times", saw the potential for obituaries and began promoting publishing them. This entailed newspapers recognize a person's death as a solemn and important event and that it needed more than just plain short announcement. As a result obituaries grew in length and elaboration containing short prayers, poems, and brief biography within them.

At the onset of the 1900s with modern advances in printing technology allowed obituaries to contain images; this allowed obituaries to become more elegant, but more solemn as well. As the late 1900s and early 2000s provided the onset and popularization of the internet, obituaries became digitized and available as a search result in addition to news papers.

Premature obituaries

By definition, obituaries should always be posthumous. But occasionally obituaries are published, either accidentally or intentionally, while the person concerned is still alive. Most are due to hoaxes, confusions between people with similar names, or the unexpected survival of someone who was close to death. Some others are published because of miscommunication between newspapers, family members and the funeral home, often resulting in embarrassment for everyone involved.

Irish author Brendan Behan said that there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary. In this regard, some people will seek to have an unsuspecting newspaper editor publish a premature death notice or obituary as a malicious hoax, perhaps to gain revenge on the "deceased". To that end, nearly all newspapers now have policies requiring that death notices come from a reliable source (such as a funeral home), though even this has not stopped some pranksters such as Alan Abel.

Obituaries are a notable feature of The Economist, which publishes precisely one full-page obituary per week, reflecting on the subject's life and influence on world history. Past subjects have ranged from Ray Charles to Uday Hussein.

The British Medical Journal encourages doctors to write their own obituaries for publication after their death.

Pan Books publishes a series called The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, which are anthologies of obituaries under a common theme, such as military obituaries, sports obituaries, heroes and adventurers, entertainers, rogues, eccentric lives, etc.

See also




Further reading

  • Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, And The Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries, Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-060758-76-7
  • Alana Baranick, Jim Sheeler, and Stephen Miller, Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers, Marion Street Press, ISBN 1-933338-02-4
  • Hugh Massingberd, Daydream Believer: Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper (London: Macmillan, 2001), p.245.

External links

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