More than 2,000 years have passed since the first death notices were carved into the stone and metal newspapers of ancient Rome, recording “daily events” (or Acta Diurnas) for their readers. The art of writing about death has changed and improved immensely over the centuries, but the tradition is still catching up to the modern digital age — and so are people’s expectations.
Ask anyone you know what they think their obituary will be like. When I did this with a group of 20-year-old, iPhone-touting Duke students, they all answered with a variation of “long and written well, in the newspaper of my hometown.” How many of these millennials have actually picked up a physical newspaper in the past month? Why then would they assume an obituary belongs to the print world when almost everything else they read has gone online?
Well, it won’t be for long. Legacy.com, an online obituary publisher founded in 1998, has partnered with over 1,500 newspapers across the world so far in an effort to usher the obituary from the printed page to the Internet. Along with a handful of smaller competitors, such as Tributes.com, Legacy aims to centralize, modernize and ultimately revolutionize the way obituaries are written read and stored for history.
“Legacy.com has made it possible for all the obituaries on our platform to be easily searched, read and shared online from any device, so today obituaries have a much larger audience than when they were limited to print,” said Kim Evenson, Legacy’s chief marketing officer. “When something is written with the expectation of sharing with a larger audience, I think it opens up the possibilities.”
In this digital age, when Facebook pages dedicated to the deceased are sprawling with comments, pictures and direct discussion with the dead (“Hi, Uncle Joe, we miss you”), online obituary companies have started to mirror this forum-type format. Legacy, for example, allows closely moderated comments and contains an online store for mourners to send sympathy baskets or flowers to the grieving family.
Related Link: A million ways to die online
“The family has so much that they are responsible for in a short window,” Evenson said in an email interview. “…By providing a Guest Book, flowers and other services, we let the people who are further from the death help and support the family, especially when they are unable to pay respects in person.”
Social media and online services are also changing how professional obituary writers do their work. These digital channels help reporters do more in-depth research and find extra features they can link to that give a fuller picture of the deceased.
“For writing obits, being online means I can move beyond words,” said Jade Walker, a longtime obituary writer and author of the Blog of Death. “I’m still able to tell a great story,” she wrote in an email interview, “but now I can also feature photos, slideshows, artwork, podcasts, videos, tweets, Instagram and Facebook embeds, timelines and message boards.”
‘Why pay for obituary writers…’
With the loss of print subscriptions and advertisements over the past two decades, obituaries have followed comics, movie listings and other newspaper mainstays onto the Web. And in many newspapers these days, those obituaries are increasingly in the form of paid announcements written by family and even by the deceased themselves — not staff obit writers.
“Why pay for obituary writers to cover the community when the grieving families can be charged by the column inch?” asked Walker, who is currently the overnight editor of the Huffington Post. “Legacy simply had the vision to respond to these changes, and acted on them by providing a digital platform for newspapers to publish family-written obits.”
Multiple studies in the journalism world have analyzed these changes in the obit business. In a 2009 paper, University of Georgia journalism professor Janice Hume discussed the growing popularity of online guest books, like those at Legacy, as a place of community and communication — both with the deceased and with each other.
“Remarkably for content sponsored by a traditional news organization, many guest books included messages to the dead,” Hume discovered. “They ranged from expressions of love and gratitude to specific instructions for the deceased. Often they were simple, repeated over and over and for many different people. ‘You will never be forgotten,’ ‘God bless you,’ and ‘We will meet again.'”
Another trend shaking the obit business is the shift to families directly posting messages about their loved ones on their blogs, Facebook pages and other online outlets — a kind of informal bereavement that gives friends, coworkers and childhood friends a chance to add to the story of the dead.
“This provides a much richer portrait of the deceased — a portrait not possible with the typical length and professional constraints of traditional newspaper obituaries,” Hume found. “…Perhaps more important, it provides a public forum for the bereaved.”
The increasing informality of online obituaries has not only affected how a community deals with grief, but has also changed how obituaries are written. The increase in self-written and amateur obituaries has resulted in more euphemisms, humor and personal anecdotes than are common in professionally written obits.
Euphemisms for dying, which I studied for a separate article, were first used by early obit writers in England who wanted to avoid the grisly details of death. American journalists in the 20th century generally moved away from the use of euphemisms, deciding instead that “to die” was the most clear and accurate way to share the news. The word play of euphemisms has come full circle, however, as many paid or family-written obituaries have started using phrases such as “passed away,” “went home” and “departed this life” to describe a loved one’s death.
While this language is becoming more and more common, most of the newspapers that have partnered with Legacy.com still follow the general formal constraints of obituary writing. Hume noted that the transition from print to online is still not complete because of the continued use of journalistic style.
“Products of a formalized editing process, [obits] report facts, and use conventional language — noting, for example, a ‘funeral’ rather than a ‘homecoming’ service, and including a specific cause of death.”
The growth of online obituaries is a natural way for the story form to keep up in the 21st century. But there’s also a risk that these services will come across to some readers and mourners as a scam that makes money from people’s loss and grief.
When I asked Evenson about these kinds of criticisms, she passionately described Legacy.com as a caring, thoughtful and technologically advanced company.
“The company is fiscally responsible so that we can deliver on our promise to be the place where life stories live on,” she said. “We are entrusted with a moment in time where we realize that material things don’t matter… that it’s the love that connects us and lives on. That’s an awesome responsibility, guarding those memories and keeping them for future generations.”
Jillian Apel is a student researcher at the Duke Reporters’ Lab.