The obituary: history and evolution of the final farewell

Courtesy Photo Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena is seen in this undated courtesy photo. Obituaries and death notices have seen shifts since they were first known to be printed in the 1600s.

The National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed in 2022 nearly 3.3 million people passed away. The leading causes were heart disease, cancer, COVID, and unintentional injury.

A significant majority of these individuals will offer their final farewell through an obituary.

According to the My Obits website, “For many families, writing and publishing the obituary of a loved one is an important part of the grieving process. In the United States, the obituary is a standard part of making funeral arrangements. However, this wasn’t always the case and today the practices around obituaries are changing as we live more of our lives online.”



My Obits states brief American death notices have been printed as early as the 1600s. These notices were mostly one or two sentences that only shared the bare facts about a death. The practice of writing more detailed obituaries didn’t take root in the United States until the 1800s when the practice was imported from British newspapers.

Obituaries became a way to honor loved ones and communicate service and funeral arrangements.

The early death notices were simply news items. Obituaries were originally printed in newspapers because that was the only form of mainstream media.

My Obits added, “Obituaries used to be part of what united communities. Before the middle of the 20th century, most people died within 20 miles of the place they were born. This meant that families lived closer together and many of the people in a given community knew each other’s families going back generations. Newspaper obituaries allowed for shared grief.”

Newspapers continue to be the primary source to post obituaries. However, over the past 25 years, print and web-based death notices have been added to funeral home, newspaper, radio station, and specialized sites such as Legacy and Dignity Memorial.



Across the globe and in the United States, major print, electronic, and social media news organizations have dedicated staff who prepare, in advance, obituaries for notable people.

For example, “in the can” and constantly updated were the obituaries for Queen Elizabeth, O.J. Simpson, former President George H. W. Bush, Pope Benedict XVI, and most recently rock star Doug Ingle of Iron Butterfly, and NBA star, Bill Walton.

Hillel Italie of Associated Press oversees entertainment obituaries, an inventory of up to 400 prepared profiles. He commented that when a high-profile individual faces health challenges or an unusual incident, obituaries are immediately reviewed and updated.

In a New York Times Magazine interview, Victoria Chang stated a journalist, in most instances, is charged with the task of writing an obituary of a person they never met or formally knew.

Then, there are the unusual passings which generate very interesting obituaries. For example, this past month, numerous media accounts profiled Bette Nash who passed away at age 88. With a 67-year airline service career, she was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-serving flight attendant.


For surviving family members or close friends this is a daunting task when a loved one passes. Funeral home staff, clergy members, and other experienced professionals stand prepared to help.

Douglas R. “Dutch” Nie, II is the Board of Directors President for the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors Association.

From his business website, he comments, “It’s very easy to find examples of obituaries that are worthy of attention. There are interesting obituaries for everyday folks that inspire us; maybe even make us cry or laugh. Obituaries which, when we’re done reading them, we say to ourselves, I wish I’d had a chance to get to know that person.”

Nie added, “Will writing our own obituaries become a trend? Maybe. We know many more people are writing their own obituaries today as it’s often given as an assignment in certain college and university courses.”

There is a distinctive difference between a death notice and an obituary.

Nie states a death notice includes the following details:

∫ Their age upon death

∫ Birthday

∫ Birthplace

∫ A list of the surviving relatives

∫ The date of death

∫ The location (city/state) where they died

∫ Details about the funeral service: date, time, place

∫ Full name

∫ Date of death

∫ Where the person lived

However, obituaries tend to be more personal and detailed.

Nie commented, “How you document your loved one’s life story is up to you. With that said, we recommend that in addition to the facts of a death notice the enhanced death notice, known as an obituary, could also include these details:

∫ Parents’ names

∫ Information about the spouse and children

∫ Church affiliations

∫ Job or career information

∫ Personal and professional accomplishments

∫ Personal character and interests

∫ Influence on his or her community”

Nie concluded, “It’s now time to push the facts aside. Sit back and think about the anecdotes and memories you could share to shed some light on your loved one’s character and personal interests. Bring factual details into play whenever you can to help the reader clearly see who your loved one was, how they lived, what they did, who and what they loved. The richer in detail, the more memorable the obituary becomes.”

The Funeral Service Foundation (www.funeralservicefoundation.org) offers a wealth of information on dealing with death, funeral preparations, grieving, and related aspects.

In addition, for veterans, the funeral home staff or the county Veterans Affairs office can offer detailed entitled benefit information.

Jeffrey D. Brasie is a retired health care CEO. He frequently writes historic feature stories and op-eds for various Michigan newspapers. As a Vietnam-era veteran, he served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Naval Reserve. He served on the public affairs staff of the secretary of the Navy. He grew up in Alpena and resides in suburban Detroit.


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