In the course of doing cremations and burials at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory in Lewisville, Texas, we frequently are asked about obituaries. Who writes them, how do they get published in local newspapers, questions such as these.
The simple answer is: obituaries are handled by the funeral directors who work with Martin Oaks Crematory. These skilled professionals, who are greatly experienced in funerals, cremations and burials are equally well acquainted with how obituaries are composed and published.
Depending upon the newspaper, the majority of the obituaries written these days are paid to be published. There are some papers which will publish a community resident’s obit, but again, funeral directors are the experts in this province — and they will be more than happy to assist clients.
Obituaries serve many functions: announcing a passing to the public; detailing the arrangements for services; listing the next of kin; highlighting life events of the person who has passed; and serving as a kind of commemorative summary of a life are but a few of these purposes.
You might be surprised to find out that these death notices go way back in history — to Roman Empire times at the very least.
Called the “Acta Diurna,” or daily acts, a papyrus version of a newspaper — it highlighted local news, including deaths.
Although the basic premise of the obituary — to announce a death — has not changed since Roman times, the obituary has evolved in many ways. It has changed since I wrote obituaries for my local newspaper back in the late 1960’s.
The most obvious is the method an obituary is conveyed — you are as likely to find out about an expiration on your IPhone or television before you see it on paper (if you are among the dwindling numbers who still subscribe to a newspaper). The medium is indeed the message these days.
But changes are a little more complicated than that. The obituary itself has taken on a different character.
Looking back in history, once the printing press came into being, obituaries began growing to the length they are today. The press enabled the writer to do more than make a public proclamation.
Historians point out that the Civil War had a profound impact on the obituary. The writing became more personal, more sentimental and more detailed.
Part of that had to do with the zeitgeist of the times, the deeply held convictions that served as the backdrop to a death — and to the religious tenor of that bitterly divided era.
Eventually obituaries entered a modern era — as a New York Times writer once expressed, obituaries became as much about life as they were about death.
For few years in the 60’s, I wrote obituaries for our local daily newspaper. There was certainly a formula involved — the announcement of the death (with precise times, dates and cause of death), listing of the members of the family, an account of the deceased’s life (employment history, accomplishments) and a posting of funeral arrangements.
Importantly, there was room for creativity. An editor pointed out to me that an obituary wasn’t a box score — a human life was involved, so make sure that element was registered.
Toward accomplishing the latter, I would obtain personal information — what interests in life did the deceased have? Usually, these came from the family through the funeral home: but, since we were a relatively small community where I had a good chance of knowing the family, I could directly contact someone who could provide those details.
Also, keep in mind, the obituaries we published then were free.
Today, obituaries continue to change, not always for the better.
Within the last few years, the tone of some obits has taken a turn — last week, a newspaper had to pull a paid obituary because the writer put in some very disparaging comments (perhaps true, perhaps not) about the deceased.
Also, some families are electing not to do obituaries at all because social media is providing the services they want.
Signs of the times.