Dying in text and picture - online obituaries

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

42 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Online Obituaries
2.1. General Background Information
2.1.2. Advantages and Disadvantages
2.1.3. Some Exemplary Websites
2.2. A critical view on Legacy.com
2.2.1. How to Create a Moving Tribute
2.3. Our Corpus

3. Analysis
3.1. Functions of the Word
3.1.1. Introduction
3.1.2. Analysis of the Functions of the Word
3.2. Functions of the Image
3.2.1. Introduction
3.2.2. Analysis of the Functions of the Image
3.3. Analysis of Text-Image-Relation

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

6. Appendix

A. Obituaries

B. Lyrics
Beth Nielsen Chapman , Sand and Water
Johnny Cash, Greystone Chapel

1. Introduction

Obituaries in newspapers and magazines are solemn, quiet affairs. But the new media offer a different kind of way of honoring a deceased loved one. You can publish articles, countless picture, interactive guest-books and other gimmicks. But a very popular means of mourning are slideshow obituaries.

A few notes concerning terminology are necessary at this point. The term obituary is traditionally used for text-only formats (sometimes including a single picture) that appear in newspapers. The slideshow obituaries of our corpus are structurally as well as content-wise very different from these. Nonetheless, we use have the term as a starting point for our paper and will use it throughout our text.[1]

One can argue that a comparison between slideshow obituaries and traditional ones is impossible because of the high discrepancies in structure and content. But our reason for omitting such a comparison is based on the fact that an analysis of this kind would have to rely primarily on linguistic aspects. The numerous pictures in slideshow obituaries would be dealt with very briefly and which does not do justice to the prominent role they play in this particular kind of text.

But the “more” of a slideshow obituary is not only the pictures. Other visuals play an important role, the layout, the hosting website. You have the freedom to use different fonts and font sizes. You can create everything from scratch or fall back on websites that provide design templates. You can add music or a voice message. The content is usually much less limited than that of a traditional obituary. This myriad of design possibilities leads to our hypothesis: we propose that, in slideshow obituaries, the different modalities – especially word and image – cannot be separated from one another. They fulfill inherently different functions and each contributes vital information to the overall product.

Following this introduction, there will be a section on online obituaries. It will introduce the concept and give examples of different website providing such a service. Chapter three contains the main part of this paper; the analysis of our small corpus of slideshow obituaries. We will determine the functions of the word and the functions of the image. A comparison of these analyses will support our hypothesis. A conclusion will round off the paper and give an outlook on possible further research.

2. Online Obituaries

2.1. General Background Information

In an age highly dominated by technological progress, it is not surprising to see that people’s everyday life takes place on the internet more and more. By now, you can find nearly everything you are looking for online. People publish their diaries, sell and buy everyday items or put their private photos and videos online, so the whole world can take part in their lives. As a consequence, you can also find death notices and obituaries on the world wide web nowadays. In this chapter, we will try to explain why this development has taken place, what the advantages and disadvantages are of dealing with death in this way, and we will take a look at the industry of online obituaries.

If you try to find such obituaries via a search engine like www.google.de and use “online obituaries” as a search term, you will get about 7.7 million results (http://www.google.de). As a side note, the first website that Google will offer you is www.legacy.com, the company we will discuss later on in more detail. This fact alone gives you a first impression of the size and the enormous development of this new kind of business.

2.1.2. Advantages and Disadvantages

Online obituaries have several advantages in comparison to the common ones you know from the newspaper. You can create them at your home computer, so you are in the environment you are most familiar with. This is very comfortable in that writing obituaries is a very personal and intimate thing; you are probably sad or confused and might prefer to be on your own instead of spending this difficult time with people you do not know. You have more freedom in how you want to create your obituary. If you choose to publish one in any kind of newspaper, you will have strict templates and every obituary will look nearly the same. You usually just write down the name of the deceased, give names of relatives and close friends, give the date of birth respectively of death and may include some further information like the cause of death, where and when the funeral service will take place, where donations can be given to and sometimes you can add a little biographical information of the person. Especially the latter kind of information can be much better and in more detail put into an online obituary.

You can add one or more pictures or even videos to the obituary and tell much more personal things about the deceased. This way you have the possibility to bring the person you lost closer to the people who read their obituary. They can see the lost loved-one in their private life, see their friends, and learn about their hobbies, everything the creator of the obituary thought worth mentioning.

Additionally, you reach many more people via internet than via a local or even national newspaper since the world wide web, as its name reveals, is available to people all over the world. So you come in contact with more people who might share your grief, who might have experienced what you experience right now and who might help you. This is what many people who put an obituary on for example www.legacy.com always point out when they are asked about their experiences with this site. David Murphy who lost his sister said “Jeanne Sutkowski is my sister. I appreciate the class you portray in announcing her passing.” (http://www.legacy.com/Obituaries.asp?Page=AboutUs, 04.06.2007) And you also make it possible for people who do not read or have any access to the specific newspaper you would have chosen for your obituary to learn about the death of the person. So even people who lost track of you or the departed person can get in contact with you again and/or come to say goodbye. Another advantage is that an online obituary lasts longer. Notices in newspapers usually just occur once and then the newspaper is thrown away and the obituary is lost in some kind of archive. Online obituaries stay on the web as long as you want; some companies even claim that their obituaries stay online forever.

Talking about possible disadvantages is a very difficult task because the whole industry is very young and people’s experience with it is still limited. One may want to criticize the fact that publishing online obituaries costs a lot of money (as we will see in the case of www.legacy.com), but not all sites of this kind charge for this service. A little questionable is the fact that the whole world can become a part of your loss. Do you really want so many people to share your grief? Do you want to be asked about it wherever you go? Do you want to be faced with the person’s death again and again? These are questions everyone has to answer for themselves and decide whether or not they can live with these consequences.

2.1.3. Some Exemplary Websites

Looking closer at the websites Google offers you, you find a lot of newspapers which have an edition of their printed paper on the internet as well, and since obituaries are a part of their papers, they can also be found on their websites.

More interesting are the websites that have been created exclusively in order to publish obituaries. There is, for example, www.mydeathspace.com which “is an archival site, containing news articles, online obituaries, and other publicly available information” (www.mydeathspace.com/). Here you can find several obituaries to look at. Similar to this site is www.memory-of.com where you can also create online memorials with a lot of different features. You can create a photo album with up to 300 pictures, add your own music to your memorial, publish a video, create a slideshow of given pictures, give a biography of the deceased including important events you want to talk about. “Creating and editing the memorial is free. Hosting is free for two weeks. Very modest monthly, annual or everlasting hosting fees are charged thereafter, a portion of which is donated to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies” (www.memory-of.com/Public/features.aspx). This site is most similar to the one we have chosen for our analysis.

2.2. A critical view of Legacy.com

We have taken seven obituaries from the site www.legacy.com and, since they make up the main part of our corpus, this site will be presented in more detail in the following.

The company, situated in Evanston, Illinois, is the leading provider of online obituaries. It hosts the obituaries of more than 400 newspapers, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe and was founded in 1998.

Visited by more than 7 million users each month, Legacy.com provides links to obituaries published by the company’s network of newspaper affiliates. Through this network, Legacy.com posts obituaries and Guest Books for one in two people who die in the U.S. each day.


According to their homepage, Legacy.com offers several easy ways to create Moving Tributes.[2] This term is trademarked, which means that no one else is allowed to use this phrase without permission. Such a Moving Tribute is very similar to the memorials of www.memory-of.com mentioned earlier.

2.2.1. How to Create a Moving Tribute

A Tribute can contain up to 30 photographs, depending on the length of the Tribute you choose. Here you may either opt for one running for one minute, in which case you can upload 10 pictures, or one with the length of two or three minutes. The captions you want to put under the photographs may not be longer than 500 characters, including white space and punctuation. You also have the possibility to add a voice message to your Tribute, which can take up to one minute, no matter how long your obituary is. Another possibility Legacy.com offers you is a small selection of music from which you can pick a song or melody that will be played while people view your tribute. You can only use one of the offered tracks because of copyright restrictions.

In contrast to other websites who allow you to publish pictures, videos or other messages like www.youtube.com or www.myvideo.com, Legacy.com is not free. You have to pay $29 for a one-minute Tribute, $39 for two minutes time and even $49 for three minutes. But your Tribute will stay online permanently. If you also want to include a guestbook, you have to publish a death notice in one the newspapers Legacy.com works with.

In contrast to www.memory-of.com, you are not able to put your own videos in the Tribute but according to John Bikus, Legacy.com’s chief marketing and sales officer, “that could be an option in the future”.


Since this website has a huge focus on people who died in the attacks of September 11 and in the War on Iraq serving their nation, there are several employees who have a look at what should be allowed to be published and screen out what seems to be inappropriate to them. So you are not really free to say or write whatever you want, but as long as you use the site for what it has been created for, you will not have any problems. Only if you try to ’dismiss the dead’ (that is how the employees call it when readers insult the deceased), that particular part of your obituary will also be deleted, since it is Legacy.com’s wish to celebrate the deceased instead of publishing that they were selfish or bad fathers or mothers. There are about 45 screeners who “pore over the 18,000 notes sent daily about the newly deceased” (http://www.walkersands.com/New-York-Times-November-5-2006.htm).

We found an interview with Katie Falzone, one of the mentioned screeners, who is working on the comments that are posted in the guestbooks of the obituaries. They have to screen out many elements which they think they do not belong in an obituary. “If the Internet has increased the ease and anonymity of communication, it has also weakened inhibition and decorum.” (http://www.walkersands.com/New-York-Times-November-5-2006.htm). That means that there are often people who knew the deceased but never had enough courage to tell him or her to their face what they really think of them and who now take their chance to express their thoughts. Even if they do not know the person in the obituary they look at, some think they have to post something denunciating or just insulting without any reason. That is why the screeners have so much to do in order to keep up the image of Legacy.com.

We also want to point out the connection between Legacy.com and American soldiers fallen in the War on Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, the site created and launched “In Remembrance”, which you can find on their homepage in the top left hand corner. On July 1, 2007, 408 Moving Tributes on Legacy.com were Tributes dedicated to service members.

There is a profile for each service member based on available information. Obituaries received from Legacy.com newspaper affiliates are also included. Information is updated daily. In addition, there is a Guest Book for each service member. All Guest Book entries are free and are posted after being reviewed for appropriate content.


Here you can see again that the content of the Tributes is regulated and restricted by the aforementioned screeners of Legacy.com, because in the case of war and soldiers, you always have (at least) two opposing groups: the ones who fight for their country and are willing to die for the cause and the others who think that war is just senseless murder of predominantly innocent people. In 2006, this special feature of Legacy.com was even “named a Webby Award nominee by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences” (http://www.designtaxi.com/news.jsp?id=2505&monthview=1&month=4&year=2006). The award is bestowed upon websites that are excellent in design, creativity, usability and functionality. Actually, Legacy.com did not get the award but being nominated is a great honor for a website. Especially John Bikus was glad about the nomination, which was very helpful in making his site more popular. This also means that there are more people visiting the site and thus, there are more potential clients.

Taking all of the above into consideration, one may criticize Legacy.com for their orientation towards commercial success and the intention to earn money with the death of people. But, on the other hand, nobody is forced to put an obituary or a Tribute onto this site. And for many people it is evidently a great help in getting along with the loss of a beloved person and everybody has the right to do was is best for him to handle such a situation.

2.3. Our Corpus

In the analysis following in chapter three, we will take a closer look at fourteen obituaries. Seven of them are hosted by www.legacy.com. According to the already mentioned restrictions of this company, their design is very much alike. They contain a slideshow that starts after you click on a button. Then you see the photos and captions followed by a short text to end the slideshow.

The other obituaries have been collected from various other websites and differ in structure, content, layout, and the way they are presented. The obituary for Balbir Singh Sodhi is referred to as a “memorial slide show” (http://healingsource.com/sodhi/sept-14-2001/slideshow-dsl.html) and in this case, you also see the pictures changing automatically. Ronald Mason was also honored with a memorial slideshow and this one contains no text at all. Here the pictures are also played back automatically. The same kind of presentation can be observed in Johnny Cash’s obituary. All these obituaries are supported by music.

The obituaries for Mark Freeth, Oskar Schindler and Hanley Denning are hosted by www.slideshare.net. This site allows you to publish videos and presentation for free. These obituaries have been created using a slideshow program like Microsoft’s PowerPoint This means that you can move on in the slideshow as fast (or slow) as you want to. So you can have a closer look at what you are interested in.

Steve Irwin’s obituary is organized in a similar way, you can alsodetermine the pace yourself and look more closely at the pictures and/or captions. These last obituaries do not contain any music.

3. Analysis

3.1. Functions of the Word

3.1.1. Introduction

The word has for a long time been considered above the image and therefore has been attributed much more significance in the past. In the new media, however, word and image have gained a renewed equality. The obituaries we looked at are definitely dominated by images and this is one of the few instances[3] where the text moves into a supportive role. Usually a stretch (of varying length) of text accompanies a single picture. There are a lot of exceptions to this regularity we discovered, when we started our research. In this part of our analysis we will illustrate the different functions a text accompanying a picture can fulfill. There will be no statistical analysis because of the diversity of the material and the small number of obituaries we looked at.

The language we are dealing with here is in general very respectful and often shows a lot of emotion. It is, of course, important to show your respect for the deceased person, when you are creating an obituary. And as people who create them for their loved ones are usually very emotional in their mourning for the person, this is reflected very clearly in the obituaries. This should be kept in mind when analyzing obituaries; language wise, one cannot expect to find anything wildly exotic or hugely exceptional.

Another thing that becomes obvious, is that the internet as a medium is very lax concerning orthography, punctuation and grammar. Three of our obituaries show remarkable shortcomings in these areas. The creator of the obituary for Peter F. Lucenti (his mother) used capitalization throughout the whole obituary and, save for periods and quotations marks, did not use any punctuation. That might be partially due to the limits set by Legacy.com[4], but some sentences become almost unreadable.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1 Lucenti_6: Capitalization, no commas or apostrophes.[5]

The example of the obituary for Henley Denning shows how tolerant the internet as a medium has become to grammaticality.


[1] We will reconsider this point in our conclusion.

[2] On May, 22, 2007, 981 Tributes were hosted on the site.

[3] Actually, there are quite a lot of genres, where the image is dominant. Most importantly the comic book and picture book. Unfortunately, these have not been taken seriously from a scientific point of view for too long a time.

[4] Cf. Chapter 2.2.1

[5] We use small black and white illustrations in our paper. They can be found as screenshots in their original size on the CD.

Excerpt out of 42 pages


Dying in text and picture - online obituaries
Bielefeld University
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online obituaries
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Steffanie Bauer (Author), 2006, Dying in text and picture - online obituaries, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/154402


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