If you are not over 70 and want a vengeful score, the obituary section of the newspaper is often skipped the most. If you’ve read an obit, you’ve read them all, haven’t you? But like any other literary medium, our last ones have written words constantly evolving over the centuries.
In the beginning, the Western obituary focused more on substance than style. For over 2,000 years, beginning in the Roman Acta Diurna (daily newspapers), obituaries contained little more than a person’s name, the time of death, and whether or not they were trampled by a herd of cattle.
This began to change in Britain in the 19th century when the Maudlin Victorians fell in love with a good obituary between rereading Frankenstein. Obituaries contained short eulogies in which the deceased’s story would be told as flowery and Christianly as possible, in case God read it during his Sunday brunch.
This evolved into the (withered) flowery thing that is possible: the obituary poem. Highly praised by contemporary authors such as Mark TwainThis American trend included a bittersweet verse or two about the deceased. The fact that the poems were very popular in the case of the death of children left us lyrical blasts such as:
“Our little Sammy is gone,
His tiny ghost has fled;
Our little boy whom we loved so much
Lies asleep with the dead. “
This was also the moment when the obits were taken over by womenwho are more familiar with this slurred emotional stuff called death. It might not come as a big surprise, then, especially in our current podcast culture, that the next big topic in obituaries was true crime. In the early 20th century Death journalism contained many factual and gruesome details about a person’s death, especially for the rich and famous. That’s how a shocked nation was allowed to read this President Theodore Roosevelt died of “a blood clot that came off a vein and went into his lungs,” then described his painful death in eight additional paragraphs.