What We Can Learn From Obituaries
Remembrances for the dead proliferate online, from thought pieces celebrating celebrity legacies to heartfelt social media tributes. But in contrast to these immediate expressions of grief, obituaries seem somehow more enduring – like final and formal entries into the historical record. How are whole lifetimes condensed in these accounts, blending events, relationships, and accomplishments in a single narrative? How do celebrity obituaries differ from tributes to those who lived outside the public eye?
In this project, we analyzed hundreds of thousands of obituaries, studying the content of testaments to both celebrities and typical citizens. For tributes to high-profile individuals, we drew from obituaries published in The New York Times and the paper’s “Overlooked” feature, which celebrates women and minorities whose contributions were unjustly ignored. We also analyzed records from various aggregators of paid online obituaries published in outlets across the country.
Cumulatively, our findings present a compelling view of how humans are memorialized and which details retroactively define our entire lifetime. What might this project reveal about how you’ll be remembered? Keep reading to find out.
Legacy and Longevity
In this sweeping view of obituaries in the 21st century, we find a surprising number of individuals living well past the average life expectancy for their respective generations. There may be a simple explanation for this trend: Those who live to a particularly advanced age may be celebrated as notable on that basis alone. But researchers also suggest that strong and positive human relationships typically promote longevity; regular interaction maintains the strength of the brain. A person with rich social relationships is also ostensibly more likely to be celebrated in an obituary, so perhaps it’s no surprise to see those with an exceptionally long life memorialized.
Of course, a sizable portion of obituaries mourned precisely the opposite phenomenon: someone’s tragically premature passing. These obituaries include creative luminaries such as Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger, whose early deaths were caused or complicated by substance use. Our data set certainly had a recency bias, meaning that there were simply more available records for more recent deaths than for those further in the past. Still, it is possible to see in our data that the instances in which individuals lived to be over 100 became more common in recent years, although we did not come across any supercentenarians in our research.
Describing the Deceased
On average, individuals memorialized in The New York Times lived significantly longer than people described in paid online obituaries. Of course, The New York Times entries emphasize accomplishment, and a longer life span would logically provide a greater window in which to achieve notoriety. In terms of content, The NYT obituaries were slightly more likely to emphasize other people, ranging from famous peers to fictional characters. Moreover, obituaries in The Times often call on contemporaries or experts to attest to the deceased’s accomplishments, quoting these people by name in the article. Interestingly, though, other research has found that many people memorialized in The Times did their most notable work decades before their death. Still, on average, those memorialized in The Times do appear to live a significantly longer life than the general population.
Paid online obituaries were significantly more likely to discuss places and specific locations, suggesting connections between the deceased and their local communities. These tributes also mentioned precise dates slightly more often, likely because many of them adhered to the convention of beginning the obituary with the birth and death dates of the deceased.
Interestingly, paid online obituaries were just as likely to mention organizations and institutions as the celebrity tributes in The Times. While The NYT obituaries may be the domain of founders, executives, and innovators, individuals with more modest reputations are often defined by the institutions in which they take part as well.
Life in Language
The New York Times obituaries prized innovation and singular accomplishment: The word “first” appeared 1,037 times (and in 83 percent of all obituaries the paper published in 2018), typically denoting an unprecedented achievement of some kind. Other particularly common terms reflected the paper’s location and audience: “New York City,” “Manhattan,” and “Broadway” recurred regularly, surpassing other hotbeds for prominent figures, such as “Washington” and “California.” Notably, the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” appeared quite often in these obituaries as well. In some cases, these words referred to individuals who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, a group whose numbers are rapidly diminishing.
In paid online obituaries, however, terms pertaining to military service were the most common by far. The Army, Navy, World War II, and the Korean War each appeared in thousands of obituary entries. These findings attest to the overwhelming passing of veterans from this period: Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, for example, fewer than 500,000 remain alive. The American Cancer Society also appeared in 5,848 obituaries, perhaps because many families choose to request donations to that organization in memory of the deceased. The term “Christian” and specific church names also appeared quite frequently, perhaps demonstrating the centrality faith can play in the life of many Americans.
In 2018, The Times launched their “Overlooked” database as something of a historical corrective: In the course of the paper’s illustrious history, white men dominated its obituary pages to the detriment of influential women and people of color. Interestingly, the terms “men” and “white” still loomed large in “Overlooked” obituaries, but their inclusion often referred to those who impeded the progress of the individuals memorialized. Creative terms such as “art” and “books” frequently appeared (overlooked subjects include the likes of Diane Arbus and Charlotte Bronte). Other frequently used words attest to the competing professional and domestic domains: “Worked,” “family,” and “supported” suggest the cultural and practical obstacles women frequently encounter on the path to success.
Relative to the “Overlooked” obituaries, entries in The Times seem to reflect fields that have recently reckoned with sexism. The terms “directed” and “production” were over 1,000 percent more likely to appear in the regular obituary pages than the “Overlooked” database – a fact unlikely to surprise members of the film industry who have recently called for more directing and producing opportunities for women. Sports terms such as “football” and “champion” also appeared in The Times obituaries far more often than in the “Overlooked” entries (due, in part, to a persistent lack of coverage of women athletes). Even accolade-oriented terms such as “award” and “Pulitzer” appeared in the “Overlooked” obituaries, yet another disturbing reminder how the contributions of women and minorities often go underappreciated in their fields.
Deeds of the Departed
Some of the world’s most coveted prizes frequently appeared in The Times obituaries in 2018, including 83 mentions of the Nobel Prize and 13 mentions of Pulitzer Prizes. Nobel Prizes in various disciplines have been awarded to over 900 individuals since 1901, and their heavy representation in the 2018 obituaries indicates the cultural prominence these accolades have gained in recent decades. Other frequently mentioned credentials were academic: “Ph.D.” appeared 27 times. Creative awards appeared somewhat regularly as well, including nine “Oscar” mentions. For a year in which the public lost soul music greats such as Nancy Wilson and Aretha Franklin, it should be no surprise that the word “Grammy” appeared four times as well. But perhaps the greatest measure of artistic achievement is the inclusion of specific titles – musical, literary, or entertainment inventions that continue to touch fans today. At the bottom of this piece you can explore the full range of artistic achievement capture here, from “Star Trek” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “American Pastoral.”
Appreciating the Present, Honoring the Past
Our findings affirm the lasting influence of personal accomplishments, from lauded creative works to distinguished military service. But obituary content also suggests the significance of moral commitments, such as religious convictions or contributions to one’s community. If our results are any indication, there’s no single path to meaningful living. But our experiences are almost always enriched by connections with others: Individuals are remembered for the quality of their relationships, whether with millions of fans or within their own families. Obituaries remind us not only to cherish the time we have left but also to consider how we might better the life of others.
To brighten the life of another person, however, we must first attend to our own well-being. And for those of us who are getting older, that means taking special precautions to stay healthy and safe. Bay Alarm Medical offers convenient and reliable medical life alert systems, so you’re always prepared for an accident or medical emergency. Counting on us gives you peace of mind, so you can stop worrying about the worst case scenario and start living your best life today.
This project examined editorial obituaries from The New York Times that ran between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 24, 2018, as well as a wide range of online resources that published obituaries between 1990 and 2018. To conduct analyses, we used the SpaCy package in Python 3.7.0, which provides a wide variety of natural language processing tools including tokenization, a part of speech tagging, and entity recognition. Visualizations were manually checked after processing with SpaCy to minimize error rate, and information such as birth date, death date, and age at the time of death were extracted using standard string processing techniques in Python. It is important to note that the study was also limited by recency, in that obituary aggregation sites had more records for recent deaths than those occurring several years ago (this accounts for the increased point density in the visualization of age at date of death). Additionally, all natural language processing tools used to parse and categorize text have some amount of error. They are, by default, imprecise to some extent and, therefore, some figures reported here may vary by a small percentage from their true values.
Fair Use Statement
As many obituaries attest, the best moments in life are often shared with friends and family. In that sharing spirit, feel free to use this content however you see fit (so long as your purpose is noncommercial). If you do use this content on your website or social media, please link back to this page so that others can explore the full project.