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Why Read Obits?

Patricia Sullivan

We'll have a story in tomorrow's Washington Post (here it is ) that is yet another example of why people read obits. A man with the obit-worthy surname of Graves wrote in an e-mail "My father was a pre-eminent reader of newspapers, both the Post and numerous Russian newspapers.... In a twist you might find interesting, he actually made a rather prominent intelligence breakthrough by reading Soviet obituaries."

Well, that correspondent certainly knew how to get an obit writer's attention.

Tangentially, I wrote an obit back in 2004 about a scientist, Ancel Keys . Here's the relevant paragraph:

In 1947, he noticed the increasing numbers of deaths from heart attacks, as noted in the newspapers' obituary pages, and began to study 283 businessmen from the Twin Cities, conducting examinations and taking blood samples every five years. It showed that smoking, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol were frequently seen in men who had heart attacks. After a decade of work, he determined that saturated fat chiefly determined blood cholesterol levels, a breakthrough that stunned the meat-and-potatoes populace.

See what you get from these little life tales?

By Patricia Sullivan  |  July 17, 2008; 1:56 PM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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Comments

"Why?", indeed ! People, with roots in the DC area, consistently read obits in an effort to, at least, get the "final" facts about a high school classmate with whom they have lost contact. Sad, but true. The name of the school and the year of graduation or the age of the decedent is very helpful in establishing this "last connection". Your work, im this regard, is always appreciated, particularly if there is some clue as to the maiden name of a departed female. The "ending chapter" can be most important to many of us. Thanks, again ! -G-

Posted by: George Anderson | July 18, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I do not understand why the Post would publish and obit of my Brother and end it with he was survived by a brother; without publishing my name?

Posted by: Gordon I. Graves | July 18, 2008 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Graves, our longstanding news policy is that we name surviving siblings only if one of them resides in the Washington area -- and if one does, we name them all.

If we should have named you, please contact me at sullivanp@washpost.com and I'll be happy to correct the record.

Posted by: Pat Sullivan | July 19, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I read them for the same reason George says...to get news on acquaintances, former coworkers, and, although he didn't mention this, I will, old beaux. Just today, I see the obit of the daughter of a former coworker. I live in Baltimore now, and I do this for both the Post and the Sun.

About a year ago, Marilyn vos Savant asked the same question of her readers in her column in Parade magazine. I wrote to her that, in addition to the above, sensitively written obituaries of amazing lives lived can be simply fascinating, and mentioned the "A Local Life" feature specifically. I travel a lot, and don't see anything similar in any other city's paper.

Posted by: Robin | July 20, 2008 11:03 AM | Report abuse

My fascination with obit reading started in childhood. I am now 61. I have been known to save the especially poignant ones. Even though the deceased may be a stranger to me, everyone deserves to have their obit read and their life remembered.I often wonder why some souls are given 100 years on this earth and others are given just hours. My Mom and husband say I am just nosey.

Posted by: Margaret in Woodbridge, VA | July 21, 2008 3:14 AM | Report abuse

I read the obits first thing in the morning. It is helpful when there is an obit for a high school alumni which I forward to our person that e-mail alumni information out. It has expediated getting the news out, and increased funeral attendance. Also I find out about former colleagues, parents and siblings of neighbors, and my Doctors.

Posted by: Mike D. | July 22, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Mike D, if your doctors are dying before you, you're doing something right.

Posted by: Pat Sullivan | July 25, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I've always been a history buff and have read and watched quite a bit of documentaries on WWII, yet I learned a very interesting chapter in WWII history from an obit in the Washington Post. The story may be well known in the submarine community, but not in the general populace. The obit was for a retired Navy Captain who sunk the worlds first "super carrier" (1000 ft long), it had been build on the keel of a sister ship to the most mighty battleship ever built, the Yamamoto. It was towards the end of the war, but still had the potential to create havoc on the Marines landing on pacific islands. It remained highly classified long after the war, in possibly because it was not until the USS John F. Kennedy in 1964 before America had a bigger carrier.

Posted by: Tom C | July 25, 2008 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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