Obituaries Have Never Been A Dying Artform
Unless you're in your 70s and looking to keep a vengeful score, the newspaper's obituary section is often the most skipped. After all, if you've read one obit, you've read them all, right? But like any other literary medium, our last written words have constantly been evolving throughout the centuries.
At the start, the Western obituary began more focused on substance over style. For over 2,000 years, starting in the Roman Acta Diurna (daily newspapers), obituaries contained little more than someone's name, 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 as the maudlin Victorians loved themselves a good death notice in between rereading Frankenstein. Obituaries started to include brief eulogies, telling the story of the deceased as flowery and Christian as possible in case God was reading it during his Sunday brunch.
This evolved into the most (wilted) flowery thing possible: the obituary poem. Praised highly by contemporary authors like Mark Twain, this American trend included a bittersweet verse or two about the deceased. That the poems were very popular in cases of child death has left us with lyrical bangers like:
"Our little Sammy's gone,
His tiny spirit's fled;
Our little boy we loved so dear
Lies sleeping with the dead."
This was also the moment that the obits were taken over by women, who were more versed in this wishy-washy emotional stuff called death. It might not be a big surprise then, especially in our current podcast culture, that the next big thing in obituaries was True Crime. In the early 20th century, death journalism featured many factual and gruesome details about a person's demise, especially for the rich and famous. Which is how a shocked nation was allowed to read that President Theodore Roosevelt died of "a clot of blood which detached itself from a vein and entered the lungs," then detailing his agonizing demise over eight more paragraphs.
Of course, in our Postmodern literary times, the obituary has taken a more ironic bent, often with the deceased or their loved ones airing out dirty laundry one last time. Like the children of Kathleen Dehmlow, who made sure that the world knew she "will not be missed." Or the obit of Val Patterson, who used his postmortem newspaper paragraph to taunt police from beyond the grave by confessing that, yes, they were the one who cracked that safe from the Motor View Drive Inn in 1971. And with so much rich history, who knows which bent obituaries will take in the future?
… memes, it's going be memes, isn't it?
One does not simply survive a tangent-obsessed brain aneurism, Cedric's obit will read. In the meantime, you can read more of his stuff on Twitter.
Top Image: PilotBrent/Pixabay, New Hampshire Sentinel