Capturing the Soul in an Obituary

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I was kind of surprised by the fact that this obituary was so personalized and that Nicholson spent so much time, effort, and care on it.  I was under the impression that newspapers had a general form they used for obituaries and then the reporters just filled in the blanks for the individual person (and I do think that some papers and journalists probably do just use a form-obituary).  However, I think that Nicholson really honors and remembers the deceased much better than these other impersonal forms.  I was impressed by Nicholson’s ability to keep the obituary interesting, sensitive, and respectful, while still being true to the character of the real person by admitting their humanity.  He does not idealize Marie Bryne, he admits her faults.

 In the intro on Jim Nicholson, it says, “…the most noble of reporting goals is to chronicle the rhythms of life and the rites of passage—cycles of birth and death, of marriage and divorce, of achievement and failure” (67).  Obituaries are a reflection of the time in which someone lived and probably will be read again sometime in the future by one’s progeny.  

I worked in a library for several summers and one of my tasks was to work on creating an obituary database so that the patrons (and there were many of them, including people from other states) who came in to do genealogical research could more easily find the date of the paper in which the obituary appeared for the person in question.  It was very interesting to see the progression of how the obituaries changed over time.  The older obituaries from the 1800s would sometimes graphically explain the death, for example:

  •  “______ died while she was standing on her balcony and was struck by lightning.  She fell off the balcony onto her daughter who was in her pram bellow and crushed the infant to death”
  •  “_____ ‘s body was found in the lake earlier this week [the paper was only produced weekly at this point].   She caught her dress on fire while adding wood to the cook stove; she ran from the house to the lake hoping to put the fire out and drowned.” 

Now obviously, those were not the obituaries word for word, because I don’t remember them exactly, but there were some pretty interesting deaths.  However, as time passed the obituaries became less and less descriptive and slowly the cause of death disappeared from many of them. 

After spending hours reading obituaries on microfilm, many of them would become rather banal.  However, I still think that if this obituary had been among the hundreds I read that it would have stuck out to me.  It did give the necessary information, but it also memorialized the person.  Many obituaries today simply list date of birth and death, a brief list of hobbies or interests, and the names of the family members (whether already deceased or alive), and the service information.  Someday, when that person’s great-great grandchild looks up one of these “form” obituaries, it will not help them to get any sense of who the ancestor was.  It will give them the skeleton of the person, not the soul.  It is for this reason that I really respect Nicholson’s obituary, especially since, “The obit is so easy to read, so direct and simple that it seems devoid of craft” (67).  Writing an obituary like he did, took a lot of time and effort, and the very fact that it seems “devoid of craft” proves how masterly it is actually written. 

Read more on obituaries. 

4 Comments

Josie Rush said:

Greta, first, let me say, sweet title. And now, on to the actual comment: I've always thought the same thing about obituaries; that they followed a strict form, and were rather impersonal. Maybe it depends on who you are, who you know, and who is writing?

April Minerd said:

Very interesting blog, Greta. I liked the detail about descriptiveness in obituaries declining over time. I bet filing obituaries all day could be a bit depressing, and, based on your examples, sometimes absorbing. But to address your main point, I also wondered why Nicholson's obituary broke the usual mold. I'm thinking the Tastykake plant might somehow be influencing this decision. Maybe in this area the plant’s comings and goings are big news to the people of Swampoodle, Philidelphia.

Michelle Tantlinger said:

It's funny how now, in a century immersed in blood and gore (and it’s culturally acceptable if not craved) that obituaries vaguely, if at all include how the person died. I know they include long term illnesses and words like “unexpectedly” or “suddenly” but other than that, we get nothing-not that I am a proponent. I think even in death most people want their privacy and they want to be remembered for how they lived not how they died.

Greta Carroll said:

That's a good point, Michelle. They probably do want to keep their privacy. But if people today care more about privacy (despite the increase in blood and gore), why did the older newspapers explain death in such graphic detail?

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