An Unusual Medium: Obituaries

Photo by Kingston Chen

Photo by Kingston Chen

At Smoke Creatives, we’re all about storytelling. An Unusual Medium is our series where we take a look at some of the more unconventional storytelling mediums and celebrate them in all their glory. In this post, we're looking at obituaries.

The History

Obituary comes from the Latin obitus, which has several meanings including “an approach”, “going down” or “setting”, and, of course, “death”. Obituaries have been running in papers for a very long time, with death announcements being found in newsletters printed on papyrus in Ancient Rome. They’ve evolved over the years and gone through a couple phases – you can see what societies valued at certain points in history through the way an obituary was written. For example, in the Industrial Revolution writers would focus on the deceased’s wealth, status, and job tenure. In the later 20th century came the rise of the ‘common man’ obituary which detailed the lives of ordinary people. Around the same time, big publications began taking a new approach to their obit writing, making an art out of telling the stories of the departed.  

The Noteworthy

The transformation in obituary writing to becoming the interesting pieces we read today can be credited to Alden Whitman, a writer for the New York Times who interviewed people in advance of their deaths to craft more personalized obits. He interviewed many notable figures including Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and Harry S. Truman.

The New York Times launched a video series of obituaries in 2007 called “The Last Word”, recording the subjects of the obits and giving them the opportunity to literally have the last word on their own lives. The first was dedicated to American humourist Art Buchwald. The video opens with Buchwald smiling at the camera and saying, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.”

Why Smoke Loves Them

For a medium that was once considered to be a punishment for the reporters assigned to them, obituaries have been brought back to life by the talented writers working on them. Writing about the dead isn’t as morbid as it seems either. In Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit., New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox says, “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life.” From neighbours in the local papers to illustrious individuals in the international press, obituaries are often celebrations that note great achievements and offer a snapshot of history through the lens of a particular human being. They also remind us of our own mortality, sometimes making us question what the hell we’re doing with our own lives and, potentially, what we’d like to be remembered for.