21    Aug 20123 comments

Family History: Telling tales of the dead

The obituary is one of the most useful of all records for genealogists, often providing clues to names and places of hard-to-find relatives or data about the deceased. Genealogists love obituaries.

How have obituaries changed over the years? Has public fascination with celebrities grown during the 20th century, while interest in those who achieve or produce (scientists, inventors or religious figures) has decreased?

A University of South Carolina sociologist has now investigated a century of New York Times obits as a cultural barometer.

Using The New York Times obituaries, sociologist Patrick Nolan has analyzed 100 years of obits (1900-2000), working from the paper’s “notable deaths” section. The results of his study, “Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Apotheosis of Celebrities in 20th-century America,” are in the summer issue of the sociological journal “Sociation Today.”

He expected his theory to hold true. The surprise was how strong the evidence would be. Nolan says the most striking results were simultaneous increases in celebrity obits and declines in religious obits.

They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival.

The magnitude of these trends is seismic. While the Greeks may have looked to their gods for guidance and entertainment, we’ve turned increasingly to our celebrities – entertainers and athletes.

The obituaries of entertainers and athletes increased in rank across the 20th century: Seventh in 1900, third in 1950 and first in 1975. In 2000, they were 28% of the obits.

As for religious obituaries, there was a slight increase to fourth in 1925 but, in 1950, that category was last. Nolan said there wasn’t one single notable religious obit in 2000.

He believes that the increase in available technology accounts for the changes in rank of these categories, and today social media plays a large part in these results.

Of course, the New York Times has always printed the obituaries of the famous or wealthy. It isn’t exactly the same as a local hometown paper which prints all obituaries – regardless of socioeconomic status - in the community.

What have you discovered in obituaries for your family? What surprises did you find? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. 100 yrs. ago obits were much longer then they are today. My German immigrant great-grandfather's obit was almost a full page long!
  2. I have learned, sadly, that most obituaries today, do not have the date of birth and many times, no place of birth or parents. In the last twenty or thirty years or so, those important bits of information are omitted. Also, many times, the funeral home and cemetery are not mentioned.
  3. Many obits today are brief, if money is a problem for the remaining family members. An opit used to be free, but now the price per word is astronomical.

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