It’s more than just someone’s death notice—it’s also their life story, preserved to make sure the world remembers them.
Most people go their whole lives without their life story being written. An obituary is the place where we do them justice — where we record their memory to live on forever.
“When Victor entered heaven on May 23, he was reunited with his loving wife of 60 years, Lucille. He was a strong man with a big heart, who never met a stranger. Dad’s famous last words: ‘I am ready to go dancing and romancing.’ We truly believe he is doing that now…”
These stories are treasured memorials. We publish them to honor a life as well as to inform the community of a death.
We want to share these profound moments with those who care.
Of course we use social media like Facebook and Instagram to share them — but if we only publish these life stories directly inside a social media post, they soon vanish down the timeline, where they can be difficult or impossible for people to find again in the future.
That’s why we preserve them in an obituary: It’s a permanent tribute anyone can visit, whenever we’re moved to cherish those memories.
Publishing an obituary in the local news, where it appears both online and in print, means maximizing the audience of people who have some connection to the person who died.
Community members past and present look to their hometown newspaper to find out about local residents who have died — teachers, neighbors, colleagues, customers.
Even as news is increasingly accessed online, people continue to depend on the obituary page, one of the most-read local news destinations both in the paper and online, as a trusted source of information. A 2017 Nielsen Scarborough report found that:
• 69% of U.S. adults read newspaper content each month.
• More than half of those still read their newspaper in print — particularly the over-50 audience who are the key demographic for obituaries. That audience will be increasingly active as the baby boomer generation is only now just beginning to crest the 70-year-old mark.
• Of readers who access newspaper content digitally, two thirds are under the age of 50 — which means as local news readership continues segueing from print to digital, newspaper publishers will still have a robust audience for generations to come.
People researching their family’s genealogy — now a billion-dollar industry — depend on newspaper obituaries to discover important pieces of family history.
Diane Haddad, editor of Family Tree magazine, points out how information in an obituary can open up a research rabbit hole abroad: “An immigrant’s obituary may give the name of the European town or village where he was born, so you can start tracing your family there.” Irene Walters and Joy Oria of the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston observe that an obituary “can lead you to other records. If it mentions a church membership, look at church records.” And Philip Sutton, a genealogy librarian at the New York Public Library, notes: “Obituaries help researchers identify female ancestors’ married names. A daughter listed in the 1940 census by her maiden name, for instance, may be listed by her married name in a parent’s obituary years later.”
All this genealogy work is possible because newspaper obituaries can be found through searches in online archives or in local public libraries. Good luck looking up that information if it only appeared in someone’s 10-years-ago friends-only Facebook post.
People want their loved ones to be accorded the formal respect of an obituary.
Legacy recently surveyed over 1,000 people and found that 88 percent of respondents wanted to place an obituary in a newspaper. What’s more, the desire to publish a newspaper obit was strong across all age ranges, spanning both print and digital formats.
The interaction between newspaper-placed obits and social media sharing has fueled that broad interest in obituaries for the next generation. We now regularly see especially colorful obituaries going viral and reaching people all over the world. One recent obit was so engaging in its humorous depiction of the deceased, hundreds of complete strangers were compelled to share condolences and raise a beer in his honor.
Ultimately, obituaries connect us through time and space. They bring together family, friends, and even strangers who live far from one another. They preserve vital history that will live on long after we’re gone. Any one individual obituary tells us something about one person’s life—many obits together offer a window into our common humanity, today and for generations to come.