By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Obits tell us much about living

When I mentioned to my neighbor friend what I was spending considerable time doing, she looked surprised and a bit disapproving.

What I was doing was reading obituaries. Many of them.

But they were not for acquaintances. They were for total strangers.

These obituaries have been helpful to me. As I think about them, I am now sitting in front of the fireplace, shoes tossed aside, toasting my feet.

On the sofa beside me is a lengthy list of “to do” items — not one of which has been crossed off.

The obituary I am reading is that of a woman, wife and mother of two daughters. She was active in her church. She made her daughters’ clothing and costumes for school.

She belonged to several philanthropic organizations, worked on their money raising projects. She is said to have been a neat housekeeper and a good cook. She gardened and canned.

She worked a few hours a week at a job to provide extra income for summer camps and cashmere sweaters, “because everyone has them,” her daughters had reminded her. One senses from reading her obituary that she enjoyed her busy life and viewed it as a privilege.

As I read that obituary, and toasted my feet, I felt guilty about my long list of undone “to do’s.” I vowed I would think of that woman as a model.

I thought of my failed sewing efforts.

One Christmas I tried to make corduroy shirts for Mitch and Homer. I had never before made anything from corduroy, but I decided to give it a try.

I failed to recognize that corduroy wale has a dauntless will. Those shirts had wale going every which way.

I noticed that after Christmas, when Mitch and Homer modeled their shirts, they never wore them. And I well understood.

I never learned to sew, but I embroidered a pair of pillowcases and learned how to make French knots.

As for being a meticulous housekeeper, I was a total loss.

If I managed to have one closet I could leave open, I very much enjoyed that one example of housecleaning. During the day I several times went to that closet and admired it.

But instead of doing endless things, as that woman in the obituary had done, I sat in front of the fire and read the accomplishments of others.

Of course, every obituary is different. Every life has a different challenge.

This woman I was reading about would have preferred not to work away from home, but scheduled her days so she could give her children attention at needed times. And her earnings paid for music lessons and summer camps.

Each of us is faced with different problems. How people in obituaries solved them interests me. When I read their obituaries I often find them helpful and innovative.

Obituaries date back a long time.

In an article by Dave Roos, I found that obituaries have been published for hundreds of years. They serve a unique role in communities, notifying the public of a passing and inviting residents to participate in the collective mourning.

They used to run in newspapers at no charge, but papers later began to assess a fee.

The earliest obituaries appeared in ancient Rome about 59 B.C. They were printed on papyrus as part of the Acta Diurna — Daily Events.

Not until much later did they become really prevalent, though. In a survey of more than 3,000 publications in 1759, only four obituaries were found.

Newspapers did regularly carry stories about deaths of well-known public figures such as politicians, wealthy businessmen, artists and other newsmakers. These obituaries were written by journalists from short death announcements that evolved into the modern obituary.

Local funeral homes began submitting death notices that were regularly published. Until linotype machines were invented, every printed letter had to be done or set by hand, and obituaries were therefore brief.

A typical death notice from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, dated July 3, 1851, was published under the brief heading “DEAD.” It read:

“Mary Duross, wife of Peter Duross, aged 54 years. The relatives and friends of the family are invited to attend her funeral from her husband’s residence, No. 1 Wall Street above Catherine below Passyunk on Friday morning 4th inst. at 8 o’clock, without further notice.”

Infants’ and children’s obituaries often included a brief verse of poetry.

By the end of the Civil War, the volume of published death notices had increased to tens of thousands per year. More space and attention were given the obituaries and they began to include more details.

Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History, advised that a death notice published in a local newspaper served as a quasi legal document. The newspaper is a public forum, and a death announcement serves notice to creditors who might want to file claims against the deceased’s estate.

Present obituaries also serve as valuable family historical resource materials.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the standard obituary form changed. In the weeks following the attack, The New York Times published a short narrative obituary on each of 3,000 people killed that day.

Self-written obituaries now are becoming more popular. A family member or a close friend may be asked to write the obituary, or they may be written by a newspaper staffer.

Obituaries and the obituary section have become one of the first and most read sections in many newspapers. And I shall be reading those obituaries — and gratefully borrowing from them.

All people have challenges in their lives. Their solutions may also be answers for yours and mine.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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