Reading Obituaries as Historical Texts
By Kim Bowman, LVA Summer Intern
On February 19, 1887, the Afro-American Churchman published an obituary for Reverend Samuel V. Berry. From this entry, we learn how Rev. Berry received his calling, where his talents lay in his job, and how much his work was valued by his community. This entry also tells us about the frequency with which he relocated for work and his major accomplishments with each move. Just over a decade later, the Clinch Valley News published an obituary for Mrs. Eliza Young. In it, the author briefly documented her life as an enslaved African American, as a mother, and as a nurse.
Obituaries are a fixture of many newspapers featured in Virginia Chronicle’s database. When we take time to look closely at their contents, we not only get a sense of the individuals they describe, but also the time period within which they lived and died. An attentive reader might ask why we learn so much about Rev. Berry’s work when the only mention of Mrs. Young’s years of service as a nurse is limited to one sentence. These kinds of observations can help identify the expectations placed on people from different backgrounds living in past societies. For example, in the 1800s, many communities tended to value women who focused on family and the home. This may be why Mrs. Young’s career outside the home received little attention compared to Rev. Berry’s work.
A paired-text activity like this one can be a powerful critical thinking activity for students in a classroom or an important research experience for someone unearthing their family history. So, next time you are reading the obituary section, ask yourself “What’s the focus here and why?”, “What might be left unsaid?”, “What opportunities might one person have had that another would not?” By analyzing obituaries as historical texts, we can honor those who came before us by trying to see them in a way that their obituary may not have been able to capture.
Figure 1: “Rev. S. V. Berry Obituary”
(Courtesy of the Library of Virginia: Afro-American Churchman. (Petersburg, Va.), Volume 2, Number 4, 19 February 1887. Virginia Chronicle. Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA https://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=AAC18870219&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-)
Figure 2: “Mrs. Eliza Young Obituary”
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress: Clinch Valley news. (Jeffersonville, Va.), 07 April 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85034357/1899-04-07/ed-1/seq-1/)