Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Bob Garfield: And I'm Bob Garfield. Obituary projects, like the one run by the city in New York, are an attempt to reckon with the ongoing disaster and to create a record for the future. But according to the historian, Janice Hume, author of Obituaries in American Culture, we'll only truly understand this pandemic when it's over. And years from now COVID-19 obituaries will help researchers tell the story of our time, who we cared about and what we cherished. Janice, welcome to the show.
Janice Hume: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
Bob Garfield: You studied 8,000 obits from 1818 to 1930, and you saw a reflection of the changing society and of the collective consciousness.
Janice Hume: I did. I found that in the 19th century, for example, people were remembered more for attributes of character than for their resume. And so men were remembered for being brave and valorous and women were remembered for being patient and obedient and affectionate. And that's not just a general impression. I literally counted the words in those 8,000 obituaries. Every time the word obedient was used, I counted it. It was so common for them that I don't think anybody would have thought anything of it at the time. And if somebody called me obedient in my obituary, I think I would come back and haunt them. It's very interesting though, when we move into the 20th century and we move past the industrial revolution, people were remembered, not so much for attributes of character, but men were remembered for how much money they made, how much land they owned. And women were remembered for their connections with men.
Bob Garfield: The whole nomenclature of death has changed a great deal. At some point it's quite, oh I don't know, Gothic or perhaps Rococo.
Janice Hume: In my earliest obits, in the early 1800's, people were resigned to their fate and their obit would say, she was ready to meet the summons of her God. But when we moved further into the 19th century, the language got a lot more colorful. And so rather than an obituary saying that someone died, it would say they were scathed by the wing of the destroying angel. Or removed from our midst by the fell destroyer. And then post-Civil War most of that language stopped. And a lot of scholars have noted how there were so many lives lost in the Civil War, that it became almost unpatriotic to dwell on death post-Civil War. And so you really saw that in those obituaries, that language went away, people went back to just dying of a particular cause.
Bob Garfield: I suppose, the battlefield photographs by Matthew Brady and others would make you disinclined to be flowery. Those soldiers didn't look scathed, they just looked dead.
Janice Hume: Those photographs weren't published in newspapers because we didn't have that technology, but people saw them in showings, galleries and were horrified by them. They were so lifelike. It was a stark reminder of what war was really like.
Bob Garfield: Obits are not typically gimlet-eyed views of a person's life. You'd never see John Doe, a drunken abuser of his family, died in agony and shame. And yet even if they aren't great journalism, you still find them useful.
Janice Hume: I'm not looking necessarily for those obituaries to reveal facts to me. I'm looking for those obituaries to reveal culture. Now, if I were a genealogist and I'm researching the history of my family, getting the names right, getting the dates right, all of that is critically important to my research. But if I'm up looking at the media as a reflection of culture and helping us understand it over time, the factuality of that obit is less important to me for that purpose.
Bob Garfield: Well, not modern American obits. Clearly we're past scathed by the wing of a destroying angel.
Janice Hume: That's correct.
Bob Garfield: Well, where have we landed in 2020?
Janice Hume: I think in 2020, we're less concerned about the stigma of a cause of death, I hope, though there have been times over history that people didn't want to use the word 'cancer.' Certainly people at a certain point didn't want to use HIV-AIDs, but I think we've moved past that to where we're honest about a cause of death, particularly with the online obituaries, with the Legacy.com. I think you see a lot of, I guess, loosening up. Pets are sometimes listed in the survivors. I know that there have been a couple of occasions of people that I know who wrote their own obituary, which again brings a totally different perspective than an obituary written by a journalist or by a family member. And those typically are a little bit self-effacing. They can be humorous, but I still think no matter who writes them and where they're published, they still serve that function of helping us understand who we are and what we value at a particular point in time.
Bob Garfield: No, I think pretty much universally, obits are written for a contemporary audience, with little or no thought to whether a century later, someone like you will be mining it for insight about 2020 culture. Is it better that way? Or why should journalists and survivors have somewhere in the back of their minds that this obituary is also a time capsule?
Janice Hume: I think that journalists should serve their audiences and leave the historians to figure it out. Mainstream newspapers reflect mainstream culture. And I really looked at and considered and wrote about what I call the silences on obituary pages, who's left out. If you were African American in the 19th century, for example, you were going to be remembered only if you serve some sort of other news value. There were a number of African Americans who were remembered in obits because they were over a hundred years old. And that's going to be newsworthy in that era. There were vastly more men remembered than women. So we have to be careful when we take a look back at history, at the prism that we're looking through.
Bob Garfield: Well, on the subject of prisms, it strikes me that in a pandemic whose toll is measured in such unimaginable death counts, that death itself becomes more abstract. What role does the obituary have in keeping us uninured by just the sheer scale of it all?
Janice Hume: Well, by definition an obituary is about a single person, a single American life. And if we are a society that values lives equally, remembering somebody in an obituary becomes, I think really important. And it helps us focus on that these are human beings and not numbers, people who are different from each other and who have different triumphs, different contributions that they've made. And how can you do that except in an obituary? Of course, we have news coverage and they've done a really nice job of highlighting individuals who've died. But if you're going to really get a sense of the vast majority of the people who passed away during this pandemic, you're going to have to look at obits.
Bob Garfield: Well, we have had exhaustive news coverage. We've also had a lot of anxiety, a lot of horror. What we haven't had it seems to me is a lot of mourning. Am I imagining this, that communal grief is absent and that as a consequence, the obit has taken on a more outsized role?
Janice Hume: We have people standing in windows and applauding healthcare workers, is about the only communal ritual that we've seen, but we are still in the midst of it. We're all afraid to leave our houses and it's hard to grieve alone, but the obit remains. And that is something that we can use. It's only a small part of the grieving process. I'm not trying to make out like it's the be all end all of everything, of course. But remembering the deceased in an individual article that people read and share is an important part of the grieving process.
Bob Garfield: Janice, thank you so much.
Janice Hume: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Bob Garfield: Janice Hume is a professor at the university of Georgia's Grady College of journalism and mass communications.
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