Writes of Passage: a comparative study of newspaper obituary practice in Australia, Britain and the United States

Author: Nigel Starck

Starck, Nigel, 2004 Writes of Passage: a comparative study of newspaper obituary practice in Australia, Britain and the United States, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Australian newspapers in recent years have increased significantly the column space devoted to obituaries. The Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Age, the West Australian, the Herald Sun, the Canberra Times, the Advertiser, and the Courier-Mail now publish them in dedicated sections, often allocating an entire page to the obituary art. Their popularity in Australia follows a pattern established during the 1980s in Britain and the United States. Australian practice has been influenced in particular by developments in British journalism, which has seen a phenomenon described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘an odd revival…the rebirth of long newspaper obituaries’.† In its first incarnation, the obituary can be traced to the newsbooks of England which appeared in the 1660s, during the Restoration. It flowered in the 18th century, in the first daily newspapers and magazines; it grew luxuriant, and sometimes ornate, in the 19th century; it became unfashionable and fell into some general neglect in the 20th. Then, with the appointment of reformist editors and, particularly in Britain, the publication of bigger newspapers by an industry no longer subjected to labour restraint, the obituary itself experienced restoration. Though the momentum of renewed practice has been of mutual rapidity on three continents, there are some significant variations in its application. The American product generally favours a style faithful to news-writing principles so far as timing and content are concerned and is frequently expansive when relating the details of surviving family and funeral arrangements. In Britain, the emphasis is more on creative composition and a recitation of anecdotes, with less of a sense of urgency about news value and a consequent accent on character sketch. Both models, in recent years, have displayed a propensity for explicit appraisal and an increasing willingness to publish obituaries of those who have undermined, rather than adorned, society. Newspapers in Australia, while adopting the obituary with apparent fervour, have found their delivery of the product restrained by a lack of resources. Obituary desks in this country are staffed by a solitary journalist-editor. This has resulted in a reliance, often to an unhealthy degree, on contributions by readers. The tone of this material, with its intimacy of address and excess in sentiment, sits uneasily when appearing on the same page as obituaries syndicated from overseas sources. Contemporary obituary publication in the United States has been subjected to some scholarly analysis in terms of gender balance, identification of cause of death, and the demographic mix of its subject selection. This thesis, by means of a six-month content analysis, addresses such questions for the first time in an Australian context. In addition, it examines issues of style, origin and authorship. It finds that cause of death is identified much less than is the case in American obituary practice, that women are significantly under-represented, and that editing is sometimes haphazard. Nevertheless, the accumulated body of evidence points resolutely to a remarkable reinvigoration of practice in Australia’s daily newspapers. The thesis, by discussing the views of specialists in the field of obituary publication, pursues mechanisms for sustaining the momentum and for improving the product.

Keywords: obituary,newspaper obituary,necrology,biography,biographical journalism

Subject: English thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2004
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Associate Professor Peter Morton