Dating back to the 18th-century, in England, America and Australia, obituaries seemed to have gone in and out of fashion, perhaps in line with media outlets’ budgets. What is divulged and the writing styles have also varied, with Americans more likely to be frank and colourful. As Nigel Starck (whose doctoral studies covered many aspects of obituaries) noted in The Canberra Times [Panorama], August 24, 2002, American newsrooms are better resourced and they often receive payment for obituaries where families and friends spend large sums on these columns.
In Australia, the late Philip Jones, who made a living out of obituary writing, noted various matters on content, recalling his experience of writing about an Australian prime minister for a London newspaper, where even a close family member was oblivious to aspects of his father’s life. Jones emphasised the importance of considering families’ rights in “How far can one go with the ‘unpalatable truth’”: Philip Jones on The End [The Forum], The Weekend Australian, June 11-12, 2005.
Obituaries make for fascinating reading about their subjects’ backgrounds, achievements, endeavours and ups and downs in life. Whether telling the stories of academics, actors, activists, bohemians, educators, farmers, fashion designers, industry representatives, medical people, military or religious figures, rock stars, sportspeople, unionists or writers, obituaries provide information about many eras, events, innovations and organisations. Among the many (often poignant) stories, readers might glean how the chaotic life of a rock star can contrast with that of an establishment lawyer. Such columns bring stories to light which otherwise may never be told. Alan Ramsey’s Sydney Morning Herald piece in 2013 on former Australian Foreign Minister, Bill Morrison, who “mooned” the Kremlin when leaving his diplomatic post in Russia, or that by David Cooney in The Age on Gloria Fry, who died aged 99 after being one of Australia’s longest-serving women publicans, are great reads.