Anthropology (248) of Religion
October 15, 2003
Choose any issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press or the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper and read the Obituary Section. Describe any consistencies/commonalities that you observe across the majority of the obituaries. If there are any significant differences in one or more of the obituaries, describe these as well.
I examined the Tuesday, October 14th edition of Saint Paul Pioneer Press, in the Obituary Section, Local News 4B and 5B. There was a shared format and regularity as discussed in class, but there were other patterns that arose based in age and economic class.
It should be noted that the only permanent information in the obituaries is the name of the person, and place and time of the funeral service. (Or the lack of, if it is a private service.) When the obituary is extremely long, the date and place of the funeral is emphasized with capital letters. This confirms what Boyer asserts, namely that “rituals [of death] are about the consequences for the living” (211). The chief purpose of the obituary, which is not missed in a single instance, is to bring kin and socially tied people together for the funeral. The name is merely there to locate the dead in the intricate map of social connections. It is not possible to argue that the inclusion of the name serves an individually-oriented purpose, because often names are accompanied with nicknames, which are only relevant with regards to people who have known the dead.
Information often shown in the obituaries include the city or neighborhood the dead lived, the list of survivors (and their relationship to the dead, mostly being close kin), relatives who died before the person, contact phone number, age or date of birth, place and time of visitation, and memorials.
Less frequently, information such as the profession, military service record, educational background (college and/or high school) are listed. Among these, the listing of military service is an odd one, as I will discuss later.
I would like to expound more in the implications of social references in the obituaries. First is the fact that time and place of the funeral service is highlighted. Words such as “TODAY” or “TONIGHT” (referring to the time of the service) are capitalized, and often are the church name or address of service sites.
Kinship relations were also emphasized. For every single person named as “survivor”, their kinship tie to the dead was specified. Since the purpose of mentioning kin is not only to inform others but to encourage them to support those left behind emotionally, other useful cues to identify the kin is provided. Nicknames for kin are common, and in some obituaries they take over more than half of the obituary, in the form of “Christy (Ian) Own, Vicky (Randy) Barker, Sheri (Eric) Volkmann, …”
Social ties were mentioned through schools and colleges graduated. I understand that the mention of the school name, besides providing a biographical background, provides a rather tight – alumni network- social tie to the dead. In this sense, the one military service listed was an odd one because it didn’t list the division nor unit name or number. It was only specified that he fought in WWII, which cannot be a useful social agglutinant since so many people would belong to this category.
Contrary to what I heard in class, several causes of death were mentioned in obituaries. Among them there are “complication of abdominal surgery”, “suddenly”, “at home”, “Parkinson’s”, “Lymphoma”, “cancer”.
Many families acknowledged that they preferred “memorials in lieu of flowers”, and sometimes specified a charitable organization, church, or fund to which they wanted the money to go. One of the families generously declared that memorials could go into any organization of his or her choice.
Patterns across age and economic class
In reading the 30 or so obituaries, some patterns emerge. I have identified one based on age and another in class.
It is remarkable how most of the obituaries never mention the word “death” nor “died”, recurring to vocabulary such as “passed away” or do not mention the act at all. More creative expressions are “crossed over to heaven”, “went home to walk on golden streets” and “went home to be with God”. Some obituaries actually say “died” or “death”, and it can bee seen that those as a group are significantly younger (40s and 50s) than the majority (70s to 90s). It may be possible that with family input (especially with the wife or husband’s), the vocabulary used to describe death could be censored in the older generation, a censorship not applied to the more younger baby-boom age.
The other pattern is based on a looser assumption and in fact does not apply as broadly. Most of the obituaries are at around 20 lines long, with the longest one being 90 lines. Saint Paul Pioneer Press charges $7.50 per line per day (name counts as two lines) and $80 for a picture per day. In this way, a pictured obituary, 20 lines long, exposed for four days costs $1051 (subsequent days cost $7.25). Assuming that life insurance does not cover the obituary (as it may vary significantly), this cost may be a burden to a low-income family, even when considering it is a one time event, since there are so many other expenses attached to the funeral. A cheaper alternative, a 10 line picture-less obituary exposed for 3 days may cost $220. As a general rule, short notices do not include pictures; this reinforces my assumption that longer obituaries are a sign of wealth, not of necessity. It may be relatively safe to assert that while short obituaries may carry a mix of poor and wealthy families, long obituaries need to carry mostly wealthy families.
The pattern observed was the time of the funeral service. Late morning, 10 AM to noon, seemed to be a preferred time for the services. Maybe it is a good time for elders, the most likely people to show up in a funeral service, to go out; or maybe a social lunch is included in the program. However, obituaries from the supposedly poor families (those around 10 lines long and not carrying a picture) consistently announced services in the afternoon. Apparently, the high demand of service sites for the morning slot increases the rental price, driving poorer families into less demanded time slots. Again, this pattern was not as consistent as the one observed with relation to age.
Some ads remind only the critical information (Name, age, phone number) and mention that the full notice was published on Sunday or (less frequently) Wednesday. This may be another occasion in which economic needs curtail the information presented to the optimum, or possibly beneath it.
Though every single obituary referred to deaths that took place one or two days ago, a memorial service taking place for a woman from California, who passed away in July 18th (three months ago). There were two services which hinted social status, and her link to Saint Paul was that she formerly lived in Saint Paul and Chicago.
Some funeral service companies included their names or the ad itself. In general, companies stuck to inserting one last line or including a logo, but one stood out of the crowd by starting the obituary in the form of “The ZAHRBOCK FUNERAL HOME of Madison, announces the death of Ione Undlin” (capitalization in the original), which was, needless to say, amazing.