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The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 38, September 20, 2015, Article 18

THE DYING ART OF THE OBITUARY

This one's non-numismatic, but the topic is important for researchers. We often publish obituaries of our fellow numismatic brethren, and often these are taken from their local town newspaper. But this Atlas Obscura article highlights how obituary writing is well, a dying art. -Editor

Online obituaries But even though my days as an obituary writer were not that long ago, the culture of obituaries has changed greatly in the last few years. For one thing, newspaper numbers are dwindling: from 1990 to 2006, Pew Research Center calculated a 14 percent drop in daily papers in circulation. Social media has transformed how we communicate, as well, creating constantly pruned self-told stories. The obituary as we know it might be over. How will we remember the dead in the future? And what did we do in the past?

In 1990 there were 1,611 daily papers in circulation. By 2009 there were 1,387, a decrease that only continues, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 State of the Media. Fewer papers equal fewer obituaries, which mean a shift in who is awarded space for a reported life story. (Mainly famous people, really.)

I asked Holly Shreve Gilbert, a journalism instructor at Oakland University and interim president of the Funeral Consumers Information Society (yes, a real thing), about the shrinking number of newspapers, and its effect on obituary coverage. First she laughed off her own obituary obsession: “I really am a happy person,” she said. (I could relate.) And then: “Hyper-local journalism is dying, and so is the obituary of the local person.”

This shift in death coverage, however, is more importantly due to the rise of the digital age. With Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, we are not only able to consume more media, but are able to create more media, media that narrates our lives the way we want it to be narrated—in effect, we have more control over our own life story now than ever.

And this translates to our death story. Today, instead of objective, reported obituaries or even paid, family-written eulogies printed in newspapers, there are sites like legacy.com—which publishes family- or even self-written obituaries online, complete with a guest book for comments—and myebit.com, which allows you to “create a free custom memorial at the world’s largest memorial site.” In February of this year, Facebook changed its policies, allowing you to designate a friend or family member to execute your Facebook “estate,” managing your account after you’ve died.

“Obits have changed a lot over the history of the U.S. and now they’re undergoing another sea change with the rise of digital technologies,” said Janice Hume, journalism professor at Grady College and author of the book Obituaries in American Culture. “For those of us who were traditional newspaper people, the idea of some of the content that comes into these digital obits, particularly message boards or guest books, it’s content that we would never have dreamed of putting in. In guest books, people talk to the dead: ‘Go tell my aunt Marjorie I say hello.’”

“It's all very soft and loving,” said Dr. Nigel Starck, author of Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary. “But it's untrustworthy and full of lies. It's just untrue. It's rubbish. But people want to express their grief. You cannot trust them as a historical source.”

“When I think of an obituary, it’s as objective as journalism can be, a story on someone’s life,” Gilbert told me. “Now, if it’s on legacy.com or Facebook or a blog, we’re basically whitewashing everyone’s lives. We’re all happy. Everyone is happy.”

I highly recommend reading the complete article, which surveys the changing nature of the obituary from the early 19th century through the industrial revolution, the Civil War, and through to the present. “Instead of ‘he died,’ it would read ‘his career was cut short.’” -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
THE PERPETUALLY DYING ART OF THE SMALL-TOWN OBITUARY (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-perpetually-dying-art-of-the-smalltown-obituary)

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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