What do obituaries tell us about nonreligion?

Obituaries, or death notices, have a practical purpose, namely announcing that a person has died. But they also commemorate that person’s life by talking about their family or their accomplishments. Once the unique privilege of social elites, obituaries are now open to just about everyone. Through the stories that they tell about a person’s life, and the way they tell it, obituaries provide an excellent source for discovering people’s lifestances: how did they live, what really mattered to them in this life, and what might happen to the dead after this life?

Alt Text

How does the research work?

To study obituaries, we focused on 6 Canadian newspapers from 1900 to 2021. Our sample included one national newspaper (the Globe and Mail) and five local newspapers (the Vancouver Sun, the Calgary Herald, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, and the Chronicle Herald, published in Halifax). From each newspaper, we collected all obituaries from the last Saturday in September for each year and coded the first 5 obituaries. In total, this gave us a dataset of about 3,000 obituaries. 

We coded the obituaries to measure things like the length of each obituary, as well as aspects like the language people use to talk about death and the kinds of details they include. 

What are we finding so far?

1. Growing Documents

One of our first discoveries is that obituaries are getting longer over time. In the early 1900s, the average length of an obituary was around 9 lines. Even as late as the 1980s, the average was around 20 lines. Obituaries of this length generally leave enough room to state the person’s name, when they died, their immediate family, and when a funeral will be held. In recent years however, the average is much closer to 40 lines, with some even reaching over 100 lines! This leaves lots more space to share more details about the deceased, like their hobbies, their family, and their community involvement.

Alt Text

2. Community Ties

Longer obituaries means more information. But people make important decisions concerning precisely what information is important to share. Did they have professional or academic achievements? Did they belong to a large, loving family – who now misses them dearly? Did they have any hobbies, or were they involved in any local community groups? And if so, were these religious, or nonreligious pastimes?

Over the last several years, we observed a slight decrease in obituaries mentioning religion, tracking with the overall decline of religion in Canadian society. Similarly, funerals are more likely to take place in a funeral home than in a church. However, we discovered that even earlier in Canadian history, when participation in religion was higher, it was never all that common to list a person’s religious affiliation.

While people do not often share the deceased’s religious (or nonreligious) identity, priorities and values are revealed through the community ties people mention. One community that increasingly receives attention are families. Since as far back as the 1920s, it was always fairly standard to mention the deceased’s spouse. Recent years, however, have seen a spike in obituaries that mention children, grandchildren, siblings, and even nieces or nephews. Rather than simply being “survived by 3 daughters,” recent obituaries also describe these relationships (e.g., loving father, cherished grandmother), or share stories of treasured moments.

Alt Text

Depth of detail also applies to the activities people enjoyed when they were alive. Occupation, a more traditional marker of identity, appeared in roughly 20% of obituaries since the 1900s, and saw a steady rise around the 1980s. Since the early 2000s, the deceased’s hobbies and personality has seen an especially sharp uptick, and is now mentioned in 50-60% of obituaries. Hobbies listed cover a range of activities. Some of these reveal ties to religion, such as someone who was a “long-time member” of their church. Other hobbies are nonreligious. Whether volunteering, spending time with family, belonging to social clubs, or cheering for the Blue Jays baseball team, these activities reflect the identities, values, and bonds which were most important to a person. Overall, this reveals that people increasingly commemorate their loved ones through a focus on the immanent: the people they connected with, the activities they enjoyed, and the causes they supported.

Alt Text

3. The Language of Death

How people understand death is made especially apparent in the first several sentences of an obituary. This is typically the place that lists the date, cause of death, and sometimes, place where someone died. Analyzing these segments,  we discovered a trend in how people describe the moment of death. The two most common phrases, by far, are saying that a person “died” or that they “passed away.” In the first decades of the twentieth century, the term “died” appeared more frequently, while both terms were evenly used from the 1940s to 1980s. Since then however, while the term “died” has remained stable, appearing in around 15% of obituaries, the term “passed away” has spiked in use, now appearing in nearly 90% of obituaries. While “passed away” evokes images of someone leaving earth and ascending to heaven, we did not find a similar increase in any other religious metaphors. Therefore, rather than a belief in the afterlife, this term’s popularity might reflect a social aversion to the term death, and a desire to employ more gentle language.

Alt Text

In line with this desire, we observed that people often qualify someone’s death with adjectives. This includes someone “dying quietly” or “passing away peacefully.” Reflecting the growing length of obituaries, none of these terms – save for someone “dying suddenly” – appeared with any regularity before the 1970s. Since then however, we observed a rise in more descriptive language, like “passing peacefully,” or “surrounded by family.” Increasing use of adjectives suggests a desire to transmit the impression of a “good death.” This describes a death in which a person feels minimal pain, maintains control, and preserves their dignity. To share that someone died peacefully, quietly, or even suddenly suggests that there was no long period of suffering. While a family might feel sadness at someone’s death, that they were there to witness the death suggests they were able to say their goodbyes. All of these elements contribute to an understanding of what constitutes a good death, something which obituaries increasingly try to project.

Alt Text

As we continue our analysis, we are also beginning to see some obituaries that reveal understandings of an afterlife. At times, this comes through language that is explicitly religious, such as someone who “passed peacefully into eternal life.” In other cases, however, we are also seeing nonreligious understandings of afterlife. Whether this involves someone “looking forward to the next adventure on the other side of the sunset!” or someone being reunited with loved ones, these suggest ways that people imagine the continuation of life after death, often without recourse to religion.

4. Regional Variation

Since our sample included newspapers from across Canada, we are able to see the impact of local culture. Most significantly, certain cities or newspapers tend to have longer obituaries. The Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette, for example, had an average length of around 15 lines. In contrast, Halifax’s Chronicle Herald had an average length of nearly 26 lines.

Alt Text

As noted, extra space leaves more room to narrate the deceased’s life and values. For instance, 40% of obituaries from Halifax mention the deceased’s occupation, compared to only 14.55% and 19.34% in Toronto and Montreal, respectively. Likewise, 21.63% of Halifax obituaries mention hobbies, compared to less than 10% of obituaries in Toronto and Montreal.

Alt Text

While it is common that obituaries list the deceased’s spouse, when it comes to extended bonds of kinship like children and grandchildren, newspapers like those in Vancouver and Halifax are most likely to include these generations. Our data therefore suggests that not only have patterns of memorialization changed over time in Canada, but there are also regional trends which are important to observe. This makes us particularly excited for this project’s next stages.

What are the project’s next steps?

We are continuing to analyze the obituaries that we have collected. Other questions we are asking include where people hold rituals to commemorate the end of life, and whether there is a shift away from traditional funerals to more festive “celebrations of life.” While we have focused on Canada so far, we have also begun expanding the research scope to the other NCF project countries, which will allow us to conduct a comparative analysis.

Who is involved?

This project is led by: Lori Beaman, Chris Miller (postdoctoral fellow)

Working group members: Achintya Shree Vijay Sai, Hannah McKillop, Sohini Ganguly, Edmundo Maza, Brian Clarke, Margit Warburg