An obituary (obit for short) is a news article that reports the recent death of a person, typically along with an account of the person's life and information about the upcoming funeral. In large cities and larger newspapers, obituaries are written only for people considered significant. In local newspapers, an obituary may be published for any local resident upon death. A necrology is a register or list of records of the deaths of people related to a particular organization, group or field, which may only contain the sparsest details, or small obituaries. Historical necrologies can be important sources of information.
Two types of paid advertisements are related to obituaries. One, known as a death notice, omits most biographical details and may be a legally required public notice under some circumstances. The other type, a paid memorial advertisement, is usually written by family members or friends, perhaps with assistance from a funeral home. Both types of paid advertisements are usually run as classified advertisements.
A premature obituary is a false reporting of the death of a person who is still alive. It may occur due to unexpected survival of someone who was close to death. Other reasons for such publication might be miscommunication between newspapers, family members, and the funeral home, often resulting in embarrassment for everyone involved.
In November 2020, Radio France Internationale accidentally published approximately 100 prewritten obituaries for celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth II and Clint Eastwood. The premature publication was blamed on a transition to a new content management system.
Irish author Brendan Behan said that "there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." In this regard, some people will seek to have an unsuspecting newspaper editor publish a premature death notice or obituary as a malicious hoax, perhaps to gain revenge on the "deceased". To that end, nearly all newspapers now have policies requiring that death notices come from a reliable source (such as a funeral home), though even this has not stopped some pranksters such as Alan Abel.
Many news organisations have pre-written (or pre-edited video) obituaries on file for notable individuals who are still living, allowing detailed, authoritative, and lengthy obituaries to appear very quickly after their death. The Los Angeles Times' obituary of Elizabeth Taylor, for example, was written in 1999 after three months of research, then often updated before the actress' 2011 death. Sometimes the prewritten obituary's subject outlives its author; an example is The New York Times' obituary of Taylor, written by the newspaper's theater critic Mel Gussow, who died in 2005.
The New York Times maintains a "deep reservoir" of roughly 1,600 to 1,700 advance obituaries; on average, it adds three new ones per week and uses up roughly the same number. Even The New York Times has been occasionally blindsided by the unforeseen early demise of certain celebrities like James Gandolfini, thereby forcing reporters to research and write obituaries on short notice.
Obituaries are a notable feature of The Economist, which publishes one full-page obituary per week, reflecting on the subject's life and influence on world history. Past subjects have ranged from Ray Charles to Uday Hussein to George Floyd.
Pan Books publishes a series called The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, which are anthologies of obituaries under a common theme, such as military obituaries, sports obituaries, heroes and adventurers, entertainers, rogues, eccentric lives, etc.
- "Talk to the Newsroom: Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald". The New York Times. September 25, 2006. Retrieved 2008-07-28.
The paid notices are classified ads. They're gathered and placed in the paper or on the Web by the classified advertising department, which operates independently of the news department.... despite any misconceptions to the contrary, no one pays for an obit that appears as a news story.
- Breeden, Aurelien (November 17, 2020). "Not Dead Yet: News Site Mistakenly Runs Dozens of V.I.P. Obituaries". The New York Times. The New York Times Company.
- The NY Times wrote his first obit in 1980 — but prankster Alan Abel died last week at 94 CBC Radio, September 19, 2018
- Woo, Elaine (2011-03-23). "Elizabeth Taylor's obituary: outtakes from a 12-year work in progress". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
- Gussow, Mel (2011-03-23). "Elizabeth Taylor, Lifelong Screen Star, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2011.
- Dunlap, David (October 8, 2015). "When Death Comes, and the Obituary Quickly Follows". The New York Times. The New York Times Company.
- "George Floyd was killed on May 25th". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
- Baranick, Alana; Sheeler, Jim; Miller, Stephen (2005). Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers. Oak Park: Marion Street Press. ISBN 1-933338-02-4.
- Johnson, Marilyn (2007). The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, And The Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-075876-9.
- Massingberd, Hugh (2001). Daydream Believer: Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper. London: Macmillan. p. 245. ISBN 0-333-69287-X.
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