Scripting Death: Obituary as life Writing

Abstract: An obituary note in a news paper is more than a death narrative. When it narrates the death, it also inscribes the life of the diseased. An obit piece is a cultural text which performs certain functions. The life which is narrated in an obituary becomes part of our collective memory. Thus, an obituary transforms individual memory into collective memory. In each obituary, the obit subject is judged and is transformed into a symbol. The symbolic value of the obituary is such that it gives moral examples, lives to be copied and followed. The article attempts to study the narrative features of obituary along with the cultural functions it performs.

Keywords: obituary, collective memory, death, remembering, his/her social position

Oh I die, Horatio,

The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.

I cannot live to hear the news from England.

But I do prophesy th’election lights

On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice.

So tell him, with the occurrents more and less

Which have solicited – the rest is silence.

(Hamlet 5. 2. 332-337)

The rest is not silence, but what remains is a set of discourses narrating the life and death of Hamlet. The significance of these lines do not merely rest upon the fact that they are the last couple of lines that we hear from the meditative Hamlet but upon the reason for Hamlet’s desire to have Horatio to narrate his life and explain the cause of his death. Hamlet’s desire makes us probe into the way in which we approach death. We cannot easily dismiss death as an everyday reality, rather we have to interrogate, explain and categorise it. Categorisation is not simply an end of it but just a beginning from which the diseased subject is perceived differently and the function of this new perception is nothing other than the creation of a collective memory.

Why should we remember?

The inevitability of death is the greatest lesson man has learned in his life – time and he was born in an attempt to answer the mystery of birth, death and the human life stretched between these two points. In other words, human life begins at the point of death, when those who are alive start thinking about the life expired. The life sprouted in the graveyard flourishes and expands its foliage over those who are trying to find their existence outside and beyond it. The canopy thus created protects ‘the believer’ from the danger of being abandoned and exposed in an alien terrain, devoid of any anchor. So the function of the cultural discourses which some way or the other deal with death is to provide this shade of a belief. That means, the danger of leaving a death unexplained is great.

Since meaning is inevitable, it is instinctive for man to explain things. The dead ‘body’ becomes an active site of signification. But, there is a fundamental difference between signification before death and after it. At the moment of death the physical body loses its significance as a sign. Thus our death rites are directed upon our need to dismiss this expired, menacing sign and our desire to have a new one in its place. As Malinowski interestingly observes, there is a remarkable similarity in mortuary proceedings around the world:

As death approaches, the nearest relatives in any case, sometimes the whole community, forgather by the dying man, and dying, the most private act which a man can perform, is transformed into a public, tribal event. As a rule, a certain differentiation takes place at once, some of the relatives watching near the corpse, others making preparations for the pending end and its consequences, others again performing perhaps some religious acts at a sacred spot . . . . As soon as death has occurred, the body is washed, anointed and adorned, sometimes the bodily apertures are filled, the arms and legs tied together. Then it is exposed to the view of all, and the most important phase, the immediate mourning begin . . . after a time the corpse has to be disposed of. Inhumation with an open or closed grave; exposure in caves or on platforms, in hollow trees or on the ground in some wild desert place; burning or setting adrift in canoes – these are the usual forms of disposal. (Robben 2)

When the body is buried in order to fill the absence, a memorial is erected. Thus, the memorial becomes a substitute for the already expired sign (the physically alive body). The new memorial features an altered perception which is a representation of something extraordinary and no more accessible. It is innately related to the survivor’s need to confer some kind of immortality (it may not be always spiritual) to the deceased subject. As Robert J. Lifton, Eric Olson and Malinowski maintain this belief that immortality is a universal response to the fear of death. Lifton and Olson find this symbolic immortality in five modes of expression. They are “biological immortality” ( consists of extending life through one’s offspring, family name, tribe or nation), creative immortality (art, literature, and knowledge), theological immortality (beliefs in resurrection, reincarnation, rebirth and a spiritual life after death), natural immortality (makes people part of an eternal universe and the interminable cycles of nature), experiential immortality (concerns altered states of consciousness such as ecstasy, enlightenment, drug-altered induced highs, and collective effervescence) (Robben 2). As a corollary, the belief in immortality makes life ‘meaningful’ rather it ends the absurdity of existence. This complementary relationship between the fear of death and the belief in immortality answers the ambivalent attachment of the living and the dead. The survivors want to break and at the same time prolong their association with the dead one. The new relation thus established through memory is different from the already existing one. The funeral rites separate the living from the dead. The familiar body is transformed into something sacred and otherworldly.

When the transformed body is buried, it is the obituary which creates a new sign. The funeral rites help us to break the relationship with the dead one while the obituary is a product of our need to establish a new relationship.

Obituary, Life, Death and Memory

Going back to Hamlet, he unofficially appoints Horatio as his obituarist. Horatio is his confidant to whom he has confessed what he thinks his cursed spite. Hamlet’s attempt to validate Horatio’s status as his obituarist is an attempt to exert control over the proliferation of his death narratives which automatically become his life narratives. Obituaries which inscribe the death of the subjects script their lives also. It simply answers the question “who is who”? The “who” is not simply the “obit subject” alone rather it definitely includes the obituarist as its referent. The paper studies how obituary becomes a mode of life writing where the life of the obituarist and that of the obit subject are simultaneously scripted. By giving special attention to news paper obituaries the paper looks at the political import of it, especially how it contributes to the notion of collective memory

Obituary: Definition

An obituary may take different forms: it can be a news paper report narrating death, or an article commemorating the deceased, a news report scrolling in the TV channels, a facebook post, an SMS, a telephone message, a death announcing flux or a poster pasted on the wall intimating the death in the neighbourhood. In short, anywhere and everywhere one can find an obituary. Bridget Fowler in her work, Obituary as Collective Memory traces the origin of Western obituary back to a series of religious and secular representations of memory. For her obituary “is part of the social apparatus for the selective ‘justification’ of certain individuals at death” (41). The prototypes of the modern obits, according to Fowler, are the monuments or memorial objects (like statues of dead on tomb) which are part of the social technology for remembering the dead. Along with this, the narrative peculiarities of the will (testament), the heraldic certificate and the Christian narratives of death suggest other possible sources. Fowler’s examples show that obituary is closely linked with our need to remember. An obituary, whether in its ancestral modes or in its most modern forms, reiterates this cultural necessity. Man cannot exist in isolation, in order to exist, he needs to historicise himself. Public spheres of remembrance thus work as socio-culturalscapes where this act of historicisation takes place. Obituary, thus by scripting the “lives,” historicises the obituarist and the obit subject.

An obituary is an attempt to fill up a material vacuum, an attempt to give signification to a sign that is materially absent. It does not simply give meaning but it evaluates the signified. According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory the “element which distinguishes an obituary from a standard news story about death . . . [is] the intent of the latter to supply an account of a deceased person’s life, often with information . . . on the circumstances of death, the obituary provides an assessment of its subject’s character, achievements, and effect on society” (qtd. in Starck 5). Therefore, an obituary becomes a playground of all those value – added statements which consider some lives as important, worthy of remembering. As there is an unwritten law regarding the quality of the subject to be remembered, obituaries create a discourse regarding the one who is remembered. It virtually sets a model to be followed, a way of life that one has to follow if he or she is to be remembered. Thus, an obituary becomes a cultural text which, like any other text, is vulnerable to all possible modes of power equations. Thus, the life being narrated through such a device is a cultural construct. The obit subject is simply a text which is absent and present at the same time and the obituarist creates his own text in each obituary. In Barthean terms, there are as many obituaries as there are obituarists. In this sense, it is not only the obituarist’s personal relation with the obit subject that matters but the social position of the obituarist is of equal importance. In fact, it is the narrator’s social position that determines the story of an obituary. As in a biography, the person who is ‘more alive’ in an obituary is no one but the obituarist himself.

Obituary: Classification

Obituaries are not always accolades. There are obituaries which carry a not at all positive image of the subject. In certain instances, the negative tone is covered up so that it carries a sarcastic tone. Positive obituaries can be broadly classified into two groups – personal and impersonal. Personal ones claim an intimate relationship with the obit subject while in the case of the latter the life is narrated in a matter of fact way. Most often, the obituaries of public figures are personal ones which try to say that the deceased subject was someone very close to the reader and establishes that the material absence of that person is a loss that cannot be retrieved. “What’s most valuable about the obit . . . is how it tries to nail down quickly what it is we’re losing when a particular person dies” (Johnson 229).

In the case of an ‘ordinary’ obit subject, the obituarist’s effort will be to present him/her as a public figure, by establishing his/her social position. The secret portion which will resurrect the ‘sadly demised’ subject from the death in eternity is a piece of memory which often takes the form of an obituary. It can take different forms but in spite of this diversity in formal features what is common in most obituaries is the narrator’s attempt to fix the obit subject in a historical context. The first step to confer a historic finality and certainty to the obit subject is to bracket him/her within the confines of the two dates. But, the paradox is that even when the subject is located and trapped in between these two years, the obituary validates its subject’s right to transcend this confinement. Therefore, an obituary is a place where a hitherto ‘unknown subject makes his/her place in town’s history or in other words, an obituary validates a subject’s right to be included in the annals of history. However, obituary is a means to come to terms with death. As it preserves life in death by retaining memory, an obituary reiterates the presence of death in life. It makes the most inevitable and least acceptable part of our life bearable. ” ‘Give sorrow words,’ wrote Shakespeare in the tragedy Macbeth, ‘The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.'”(qtd. in York xiii) At no time are these words more poignant than when we honour and bury the dead. The grief that does not “speak” in some way—through crying or talking or ritual activity; through tributes of charity or creative expression—remains unresolved (xiii). And an obituary becomes a means to resolve this. Grief is a private affair when it is over the death of someone who is very intimate and close. In such cases an obituary transforms something very private into public. An obituary is a space where the personal and public dramatically coexists. An obituary has two – fold functions – one is to narrate the death and everything associated with its material condition and the other is to keep alive the memory of the death (and life) itself.

News Paper Obituaries

As stated earlier, one can see obituaries everywhere but newspapers are still those ‘wonderful sites’ where one can see this very short briefing of life in its manifold forms. Obituaries are ubiquitous and can be seen anywhere in a newspaper. Newspaper obituaries have a hierarchy according to the page in which they appear. They can be broadly classified into two groups – paid obituaries and obituaries as news items. Obituaries become news items when it is over the death of some one very important, or on some very rare incidents of death. In short, it is the rarity and importance of either the obit subject or the manner of death that determines the news value of death. The most unusual (even though it is a sweeping generalisation) and the most ‘important’ reports find their place in the front page which will have follow up stories in the pages to come. Every local news paper has a separate page set apart for the specific function of narrating and reporting death. Death reports in this part of the newspaper are arranged in a chess board fashion where black and white play a vital role. The subject’s position in this “obit matrix” will be determined by his/her social position. In the obit of the ‘most prestigious’ subject, the entry will be made by stating the reason for his/her prominence along with the name. Sometimes, this specification ends with the title itself, but in most cases there will be a discourse on his/her achievements. The other subjects who will be otherwise immersed in the homogeneity of the obit matrix are saved from this by the help of a photo. In the absence of a photo, the name of the person along with the place name works as a reference point. As the next step the family name is mentioned. But in the case of a female obit subject there is a political deferring; her identity and existence are referred in terms of her male supporters. This can be her father or her husband. Like the women folk, children, the other weaker section of the society is known in the care of their fathers. Mother’s name is always virtually absent as the first reference point. Apart from the obit matrix, this page also includes death reports and paid obituaries which are often put in boxes. In the case of the paid obituaries, even though the size, the wordings and the degree of formal ornamentation vary they very rarely violate the colour code of the page. Such obituaries which differ itself from others by means of a colour photo or a gilded boarder find their place in other pages where the reader’s eyes unexpectedly meet an obituary.

Narrative Techniques

When obituary becomes a form of narrative, its narrative features and functions demand attention. The length of the narrative speaks a lot. The narrative can be just limited to the bare minimum details which will locate the subject in a historical context. The supporting details can be the name of the subject, the date of death, the place of death, his/ her social position, and a small catalogue of personal relations. Most often, an obituary carries a photograph. The photograph contributes much to its narrative function. Even though selecting a photograph for an obituary is a matter of contingency, the frozen moment of history acts as a parallel text to the written text. In this context, it is interesting to observe what Davies has to say on our psychology behind the observation of a visual narrative, especially a painting or a photograph:

Why own a painting of a place, for example, if one sees the actual location every day? One obvious reason lies in the process of creative representation – it is because we think about and ponder things and do not simply observe them. And in thinking of them we ‘add to’ their significance in creating multi-layered meanings. (116)

Taking the first part of Davies’ observation, an obit picture does not definitely make a good example. But on the contrary, the fact that we won’t see the person anymore again makes it important. As Barthes observes in Camera Lucida, “the effect it [a photograph] produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see had indeed existed”(82). A photograph or a r. painting for that matter assents the obituarist’s claim of reality to the obit subject. The latter part of Davies’ observation is very much significant in the case of an obituary. It deals with that aspect of perception which gives meaning to a representation – the gaze. “Gaze designates the visual field that relates seer, seen, the conventions of seeing, and the physical, ritual, and historical contexts of seeing” (Morgan 4), Gaze then is “a practice, something that people do, conscious or not, and a way of seeing that viewers share” (5). In the case of an obit picture, the protocol that determines the grammar of an obit piece is derived from that particular community’s visual culture.

The grammar of an obit changes according to the way in which the various items are distributed and presented in the obit space. Most important among this is the colour tone of the photograph. As it is mentioned earlier in the obit page black and white dominate. This careful restriction is not at all innocent (signifying the grief and hope associated with death) but a highly political step through which the process of historicisation takes place. “History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it we must be excluded from it” (Barthes 65). The combination of black and white distances the obit subject from the colourful world of everyday life. Usually in visual narratives, black and white is used to represent images which claim great tradition and antiquity.

Apart from these primary references, the age of the subject is also mentioned. The age is mentioned since it asserts the linearity of human life. This kind of a perception “where time moves in a straight line . . . from a given beginning to a stipulated end,” as Romila Thapar maintains, makes each event “unique” (2). It reiterates the humanistic idea of progress. The life – script in an obit aims to make the reader aware of the finality of human existence. At the same time, it provides the yardstick to measure and transcend this finality. Obituaries venerate a socially acceptable life and death. An obituary is a record of the social importance of the subject. It answers the question who is he or she to society. It analyses what they have left for this world. It may be their professional legacy, a list of their posterity or a personal connection through which the obituarist seeks the immortality of their subjects. What is most important with regards to this is how news paper as a medium controls the scripting of the text of an obituary.

The forces of cultural surveillance work in a news paper and it is even more stringent when it comes to obituary. This has a lot to do with our understanding of the functions of a newspaper. It has a special significance in the Indian context where the history of journalism is closely linked with the history of freedom struggle. News papers are powerful mediums of socialisation which gain its power from the much celebrated objectivity, sense of justice, and its proclaimed aims of creating and maintaining a national consciousness. Newspapers in a way do the function of cultural policing and in this perspective obituaries are as significant as a formal news item since it is there in the political space of an obituary the process of historicisation takes place. News paper as a cultural agency has to strictly define the paradigms of this: “It is through the obituary, above all other forms of journalism, that an insight is obtained of what it was like to be a citizen of a particular community at a particular time, for it offers a sustained, often dramatic, reflection of prevailing mores” (Starck 46).

Obituary as Collective Memory

Obituary, thus transforms individual memory into collective memory. According to Max Saunders:

the notions of “cultural” or “collective” memory proceed from an operative metaphor. The concept of “remembering” (a cognitive process which takes place in individual brains) is metaphorically transferred to the level of culture…. two radically different concepts of culture are involved here, one that sees culture as a subjective category of meanings contained in people’s minds versus one that sees culture as patterns of publicly available symbols objectified in society. (323)

In this way, in each obituary the obit subject is transformed into a symbol. The symbolic value of the obituary is such that it gives moral examples, lives to be copied and followed. The moral policing in an obituary takes place in a number of ways. As Butler says, in an obituary, lives are quickly tidied up, and summarised, humanised”(qtd. in Fowler 3). Only the details which are ‘relevant’ are presented. Another way to do this is by giving a ‘critical discourse’ of the obit subject. By revealing the subject’s subversion of legal or ethical rules, the writer effectively undercuts the obit’s ostensible objective: to praise” (Fowler 18). The most common and widely accepted one is that of eulogy.

In an obituary the memories of a group of people are assimilated and codified. The obit subject is identified as a member of a family, a social group or an occupational cluster assuming particular roles. In an obit the experiences of the obituarist(s) with the obit subject who performed these roles are turned into something that belongs to the collectivity (both the collectivity of the obituarists and those who read it). When memories are transferred from the level of an individual to that of a collectivity, it becomes an attempt to create a shared past. Participants in a social order always presuppose a shared memory and the images of the past commonly legitimise the present social order. Images and recollections of the past are conveyed and sustained by ritual performance. Obituary is such a ritual which is done shortly after the death and meticulously observed during anniversaries. So it aims at the direct or indirect cultural transmission of certain images of the past by narrating life.

In addition to the transmission of memory, an obituary helps us to locate memory. A short anecdote of Simonides of Ceos will clarify Halbwatches notion of loci memoriae. Simonides was a Greek poet and one day he had to witness a terrible accident. The roof of the dining hall of the house of a wealthy man where Simonides was having dinner with others collapsed and caused the death of everybody present in the hall. Simonides was luckly escaped from the accident since he had left the hall for a moment. As the only survivor the poet was asked to identify the bodies. Even though, it was not possible to identify the completely mutilated bodies, Simonides was able to identify the dead because he remembered who had been seated where just before the accident happened. Simonid’s story reminds us of the importance of locating memory (Boer 19).

Locating memory is an important strategy in the social act of remembrance. According to Halbwachs, no collective memory can exists without reference to a socially specific framework. Within this framework our memories are localised and it is done by a kind of mapping. Members of a community situate remembrances within the mental spaces provided by the group. And these mental spaces receive their sustenance from similar material spaces around them. The ‘relative stability’ of these material spaces give us the promise that we can always retrace our steps and rediscover our past in the presence:

We conserve our recollections by referring them to the material milieu that surrounds us. It is to our social spaces – those which we occupy, which we frequently retrace with our steps, where we always have access, which at each moment we are capable of mentally reconstructing – that we must turn our attention if our memories are to reappear (Connerton 37)

The news paper in a similar way helps us to locate our memory. The obit page works us a museum where we recollect our images of the past. The obituary in a news paper thus reassures us of the certainty of certain lives as reference points. In addition to this sociological function it also alleviates the fear of death by promising symbolic immortality. It confers biological immortality by listing the names of the close relatives. It is interesting to observe that most obituaries use the phrase “survived by”. There is also space for “creative immortality” and “theological immortality” in an obit script. An obit is often made into an exquisite art form where lines from religious texts are quoted to reassure the believer of the eternal promise. An obituary in short is not simply a death announcement rather it is a life script, a cultural text, doing some definite functions.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage, 1993. Print.

Boer, Pim Den. Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Eds. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nunning. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. Print.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: CUP, 1989. Print.

Davies Douglas J. A Brief History of Death. Carlton: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Fowler, Bridget. The Obituary as Collective Memory. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Johnson, Marilyn. The Dead Beat. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.

Robben, Antonius C. G. M. “Death and Anthropology: An Introduction” Death, Mourning and Burial: A Cross Cultural Reader. Ed. Robbers. New York: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Sarah, York. Preface. Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life. San Francisco Jossey-Bass, 2000. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edward& Updated Edition. CUP, 2012. Print.

Starck, Nigel. Life After Death: The Art of Obituary. Melbourne: Carlton, 2006,-, Print.


PRAVATHY DAS. Is a post graduate in English, settled in Changanassery

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Is a post graduate in English, settled in Changanassery

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