'The passing news'

Dateline: Thu 20 Aug 2009

A Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, Jeff Gammage, wrote an interesting little piece this past June for a special-interest web site, Obit. The site's Raison d'etre:  "Death is only half the story. Obit is about life..."

In a lively bit of historical research, reveals that it took the Civil War to bring about the formal, stylized obits which we know today.

Prior to that, starting in Colonial times, papers ran obits or death notices, but they were scattered throughout the rest of the news without rhyme or reason. Typically, the notices were but two or three lines -- as in this one from the Inquirer in 1829:

“Mr. Jonathon Russel of Brockport put a period to his existence by shooting himself through the head with a musket, loaded with powder and shot. Mr. R. was about 50 years of age - he left a wife and seven children in Salem, Ashtabula County, Ohio; and another wife in Brockport.”

Gammage relies on University of Georgia associate professor Janice Hume who, after studying 8,000 obits, wrote "Obituaries in American Culture," followed by "Journalism in a Culture of Grief."

Her big finding: the modern obit, came about as a result of the Civil War, with its unprecedented loss of life.

Papers could no longer afford the flowery language of the dead being "summoned to the reward of rightousness" but instead had to simply report the multitude of deaths that happened, quickly and often with great bloodshed on battleshields.

A tidy and fascinating history -- and thanks to a newpaperman for reporting it. Gammage did his research for the paper's 180th anniversary; he read many historical obits published by his paper to write a piece on obituaries and their past.

To read the entire story on obit.com, here is the web site:






ellen mckinney [unverified] said:

what an invitation to disaster!

and, of course, yet another reason not to trust what once was indiana's newspaper of record.

2009-08-21 20:29:21

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

Jonathon Byrd's paid obit was very long. There also was a large biz news tribute story about him. Any connection between the paid and unpaid space devoted to his passing?

2009-08-23 12:42:00

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