Sunday, October 25, 2009

Putting Your Best Face Forward: Younger pictures in obituaries

Look carefully at the obituary page of your local newspaper and you'll notice that the photos of the deceased often show them to be much younger that they were at the time of death. If the age difference is significant, it can be confusing for readers because they will often pass by the obituary thinking that the familiar name belongs to someone else. This is especially true with military service photos because today's dress uniforms and portraits are often very similar to the ones used in earlier conflicts. I understand the desire to use a meaningful photo, and love to see the old ones, but as a funeral director, I counsel families to use one that friends will recognize in the obit, or to use two photos to show both ages.

obituary memorial art

A recent study suggests that there is more to this phenomenon than meets the eye. A trend has been found where the age disparity of these photos grows greater each year. The reasons behind this trend are not necessarily linked to vanity, as most photos in my experience are not chosen in advance by the deceased, but by the survivors.
obituary memorial art

The study was examined in an article published in the Jerusalem Post today. Here is an excerpt:

A recent study at Ohio State University that looked at photographs published in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland found that the number of obituary photographs showing the deceased at a much younger age more than doubled between 1967 and 1997. And women were more than twice as likely as men to have a youthful obituary photo, said OSU social work Prof. Keith Anderson, who coauthored the study.
Anderson said either spouses or adult children of the deceased chose the photographs. They understandably wanted a photo that they thought represented their spouse or parent at his or her peak, he said. But what is remarkable is how we as a society define these peak years.
In 1967, about 17 percent of the obituary photographs surveyed in the daily newspaper were "age-inappropriate" - meaning they showed the deceased at least 15 years younger than when they died. By 1997, the rate (among 400 obit photos) had increased to 36%. "Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society," wrote Anderson in the study published in Omega: Journal of Death and Dying. "Our findings suggest that we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the 1960s." for the full article, visit the Jerusalem Post


Ef Box Funerals Ltd said...

Interesting article and I guess a reflection of the times we live in. I sometimes wonder when exactly it was that we all became so image conscious? Here in the UK, most of our obituaries (too date) don't feature photographs at all, although I wonder how much longer that will be the case?

Layna said...

If a woman dies at age 80, she wasn't an 80-year-old woman her whole life. Many people who knew her when she was thirty won't recognize a picture of her at 80. The funeral usually celebrates the entire life of the deceased, not the past year. I think a picture from the middle of the life of a person who lived a long time is most appropriate.

Alaura said...

An obituary is like a funeral, a way to remember and honor the deceased. A youthful photo is something family and friends can see and think back on happier times. Depending on the person and how they passed, an age appropriate photo might be a painful reminder of a lost battle. I like the thought of memorializing someone at their best.

Tad Y said...

I honestly think this is a decent idea. I work at a nursing home and many of the elderly that I come into contact with do not want to look "old" in their obituary. It doesn't hurt anyone.

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