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.

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