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Reporting on death changed with life

Nobody died in the 1850s. Instead, people were scathed by the wing of the destroying angel, erased by the omnipotent author, or summoned to the reward of the righteous.

Nobody died in the 1850s.

Instead, people were scathed by the wing of the destroying angel, erased by the omnipotent author, or summoned to the reward of the righteous.

They were still just as dead as people are today.

But back then, newspaper obituaries climbed the heights of euphemism to describe death without actually having to say that somebody had died. It wasn't until the Civil War - when thousands upon thousands of families lost loved ones, making death a familiar though unwanted companion - that newspapers began to call it what it was.

By war's end, "it was almost unpatriotic to dwell on death," said University of Georgia associate professor Janice Hume, perhaps the nation's foremost authority on obituaries, "because so many people died."

What's more, they died young, far from home, and often violently.

For her book Obituaries in American Culture, Hume read more than 8,000 obituaries published in newspapers from New York to San Francisco. A second book, Journalism in a Culture of Grief, written with Temple University associate professor Carolyn Kitch, examined the role of news reporting on interpretations of public mourning.

Obituaries have been part of newspapers from the beginning. But they weren't called obituaries at first. They weren't even gathered on the same page until around the time of the Civil War. Before that, they were scattered throughout the paper or contained within larger stories.

For instance, an account headlined "News From [a town]" might include word that a prominent citizen had died.

Inquirer obituaries followed the tenor of the times. In 1829, the paper carried a front-page obituary of a newspaper editor named Eugenius Roche, who left "an amiable widow and a very large family, many of them young."

The wife's name? The names of the children? No mention. That sort of omission was common in an age when male dominance was unquestioned, and women and children went unidentified in the public record.

Later that year, The Inquirer reported the violent passing of a man:

"On Friday morning, Mr. Jonathon Russel of Brockport put a period to his existence by shooting himself through the head with a musket, loaded with powder and shot. Mr. R. was about 50 years of age - he left a wife and seven children in Salem, Ashtabula County, Ohio; and another wife in Brockport."

In the late 19th century, people were remembered more for attributes of character than for their resumes. Men were patriotic, brave, and gallant; women patient, resigned, and obedient. By the early 20th century, when machine-building and moneymaking became paramount, obituaries shifted again, describing people in terms of their wealth and employment.

Indeed, the death of one child merited the headline "Career Cut Short."

Today, news of recent deaths remains central to many newspaper readers, a printed obituary having "value to people as a physical object that they're going to save, that they're going to clip out, that they're going to send to somebody," Temple's Kitch said. "It has a sense of proof that online versions do not."

The language of obituaries is changing again, harkening to the 1800s as it grows flowery, with more frequent descriptions of the dead having been called home to heaven or resting with the angels.

Kitch cites a couple of reasons. One is that in their present economic straits, more newspapers are willing to accept family-written obituaries, which tend to be less dispassionate. Another is the rise of public religiosity, of people's willingness to openly proclaim their faith, particularly Christian faith.

"Over time," Kitch said, "you can see the values of the culture changing."