The evolution of obituaries

Online Memorials
A person with greyish hair and glasses sits on a bench overlooking the ocean, and reads a newspaper.

We are all well aware of obituaries, memorial pieces and death notices in the newspaper and online. These are notices that let us know that someone has passed away. They provide us the details of family connections and when their funeral, memorial service or other tribute event is.

We hear celebrity notices and tributes on the evening news. And, up until recent times, we used to read obituaries in the memorial notices or death notices in the daily newspaper.

How times have changed even in this space! But what is the history of these notices? When did they begin? How have they changed over the years? How has our current technology changed notices and how we communicate in the sad situation that we lose someone close to us?

The origins of obituaries

Obituaries have been part of our lives for well over 600 years. Ever since printing presses were invented and newspapers were published, obituaries have been printed in local newspapers.

The earliest obituaries were very brief, because it took a lot of time to set the type in preparation for printing the newspaper, and then to actually print the newspaper. The papers where only a few pages long!


At this time, obituaries were written by the editor of the paper. They were most often one line in length, with the barest details of the name of the person who had passed away, their age and date of death.

Some more notable characters in the community may have had additional details about their cause of death and family connections included. While the length of any obituary was at the editor’s discretion, with a four-page paper, even obituaries for well-known or beloved members of the community were very brief.

The evolution of obituaries into death notices

With the invention of the Linotype Machine in 1886, typesetting for printing became far easier and quicker. Along with this advancement, the amount of space made available for memorials also increased. And newspapers expanded beyond the previous four-page-long limitation.

The advances of more space and longer notices gave birth to a new trend. Previously, editors or editorial staff were responsible for writing obituaries. The new trend was for families to write the memorial passages for their loved ones and provide them to the paper to be printed.

As a result, additional details were provided to give more of the story of the life of the person who had died, including who the person was, their family linkages, their status or position in the community, their occupation and how they had passed away. These notices also provided details of the funeral or memorial service for extended family or friends who might not be in regular contact.

The difference between an obituary and a death notice

The difference between obituaries and death notices is that obituaries were written by the editor or newspaper staff, while death notices were written by the family.

The name evolved into "death notices" with the evolution of printing machines and when families started writing notices or memorials themselves. Up until this point, notices had all been referred to as "obituaries". As it became more popular for families to write the notices, they became "death notices".

As families supplied more detailed death notices, newspapers saw an opportunity to grow revenue. The notices started to become paid classified pieces in papers, and charges started to grow.

Beyond print...

In the late 20th century, it became popular to write obituaries as poems, a trend that only lasted for a few years.

In addition, driven by the trend of families writing memorial pieces, the length of obituaries become more equal across society. The difference in length between obituaries of well-known or well-placed individuals in the community (being quite long) and other not-so-well-renowned members of the local areas (who traditionally had rather short obituaries) began to close. Newspapers began publishing more equal length notices for any person.

As technology has increased in power, and become more accepted, more popular and an integral part of our lives, obituaries have evolved further. Virtual or online memorial sites have been developed and are becoming the preferred method of both communicating the death of a loved one, and celebrating their life, all in one place.

Alongside the traditional obituary or memorial notice, content which includes personal details, immediate family and funeral information, online memorial pages also allow you to build memory spaces that document the life of your loved one. This keeps part of our loved one alive in our hearts and minds, and lets us share their memory with those we love and care about.

Family members or friends who have been include in the page or received sharing permissions also have the opportunity to contribute to the page, sharing their own memories.

Memories is a well-known and trusted online memorial website. We provide memorial pages that you and your family can customize for your loved one. With your permission, family and friends can also contribute to the memorial page, which, unlike the obituaries of old, is saved online forever so that future generations can get to know your loved one, too.