BBC Radio 4’s social history and sociology programme Thinking Allowed recently had a programme on how death and dying customs have changed over time and how obituaries say as much about society as they do about the deceased.
A guest on the show is sociologist Prof Allan Kelehear who discusses his book A Social History of Dying (ISBN 9780521694292) that charts how changes in the physical process of death have meant our social customs have altered to better make sense of new forms of dying.
In ancient times, death was generally quick and sudden, and so little ceremony was needed and people were generally left where they died.
However, as humans became better at avoiding a violent end, death was more often due to disease which was a slower process and so changed the social customs related to the dying process.
Kelehear argues that as we have become better at predicting death, even through the modern times, we’ve developed ways of preparing for our imminent demise, both socially and psychologically.
As obituary is a type of ‘social memory’, something we decided to record because we feel other people should know it for the future, it also reflects the cultural assumptions about who and what are important at the current time.
Unsurprisingly, obituaries have typically been concerned with the deaths of the upper classes, but she notes that their style is changing and has become somewhat more democratic and surprisingly frank in some instances.