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Death and A Spreadsheet

Patricia Sullivan

One of the things people seem to find fascinating about obituaries is how there are seasons to the obit year -- more people tend to die over the winter holidays and at the end of winter, we've noticed. When we get a bad weather month, the number of requests for obits spikes. Whenever we mention this to people, they invariably want to know more.

A few years ago, looking for a chance to practice my spreadsheet skills, I arduously created a file that reported how many obits we published per month, the male-female breakdown, the number of local versus non-local obits, how many newswire stories we used, how many obits ended up on page A1, the number of bylined obits (indicating a longer one that takes extra effort to create) and how many contained photos.

I won't be doing that again, particularly because I was my own data-entry clerk, thumbing through old papers and scribbling down hashmarks on spreadsheet. The executive summary is that we publish about twice as many obits of men as women, 80 percent of our obits are about local residents, just under 20 percent of obits carry bylines and we break on to A1 once a month, on average. The last stat matters to reporters, but probably to no one else.

We have stats for all of 2006, 2007 and half of 2008, when we lost a full-time staffer. Here are the bottom-line numbers, in graph form. The graphs aren't as sharp as they could be (I used a free National Center for Education Statistics chart creator, and edited it in Picasa) but I think it's readable. Let me know if you think it's worthwhile. Charts after the jump....




Do you know of any national or international statistics that would support this idea? Or is it all anecdotal?

By Patricia Sullivan |  April 24, 2009; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Obituaries , Patricia Sullivan
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It's interesting that there are still two times as many obits on men as on women, at least in the years Ms. Sullivan tracked. I speculate that 2:1 is a more balanced representation of who dies than it would have been in the Post's obits of, say, a decade or two ago.

Posted by: glendaholste | April 24, 2009 5:20 PM

I wonder how these statistics will track out over the next twenty to thirty years. As the Baby Boomers begin their inexorable trip to the obit page, will the Post -- and other newspapers -- make room for more obits? Or will the life story or resumé that earns an obituary today not suffice tomorrow?
Maybe the obituary section will become a growth sector for the paper.
Interesting spread sheet. Thanks for taking the time to compile it. Perhaps some eager Phd. candidate somewhere will pick up your work and make a career of it.

Posted by: downs1 | April 27, 2009 8:43 AM

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