An obituary is a death notice which often includes an attempt by an author, publication, or news organization to give an account of the life of someone considered significant who has recently died. It can, however, be simply a death notice (also known as a funeral notice), and may be a paid advertisement written by family members and placed in a newspaper either by the family or the funeral home.
Many news organisations have pre-written (or pre-edited video) obituaries on file for notable individuals who are still living, allowing detailed, authoritative and lengthy obituaries to appear very quickly after their death.
The first obituary is very difficult to trace, however many candidates are found at the advent and popularization of the printing press circa 1500s. The first obituaries were concise, simply containing the deceased name, birth date, death date, and cause of death.
During the late 1800s John Thadeus Delane, an English editor of the London newspaper The Times, saw the potential for obituaries and began publishing them. This entailed newspapers recognizing a person’s death as a solemn and important event that needed more than just a short announcement. As a result, obituaries grew in length and elaboration, containing short prayers, poems, and brief biographies.
At the onset of the 1900s modern advances in printing technology allowed obituaries to contain images; this allowed obituaries to become more elegant, but more solemn as well. As the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the internet become more popular and ubiquitous, obituaries became digitized and available as a search result in addition to newspapers.
By definition, obituaries should always be posthumous. But occasionally obituaries are published, either accidentally or intentionally, while the person concerned is still alive. Most are due to hoaxes, confusions between people with similar names, or the unexpected survival of someone who was close to death. Some others are published because of miscommunication between newspapers, family members and the funeral home, often resulting in embarrassment for everyone involved.
Irish author Brendan Behan said that there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary. In this regard, some people will seek to have an unsuspecting newspaper editor publish a premature death notice or obituary as a malicious hoax, perhaps to gain revenge on the “deceased”. To that end, nearly all newspapers now have policies requiring that death notices come from a reliable source (such as a funeral home), though even this has not stopped some pranksters such as Alan Abel.
Obituaries are a notable feature of The Economist, which publishes one full-page obituary per week, reflecting on the subject’s life and influence on world history. Past subjects have ranged from Ray Charles to Uday Hussein.
The British Medical Journal encourages doctors to write their own obituaries for publication after their death.
Pan Books publishes a series called The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, which are anthologies of obituaries under a common theme, such as military obituaries, sports obituaries, heroes and adventurers, entertainers, rogues, eccentric lives, etc.