BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES COLUMN
The births, deaths and marriages column has been a feature of the Australian press since the early 1800s. The column continues to be most popular in newspapers that serve niche geographical areas—particularly small towns and cities—but larger publications covering states and territories also have a long-standing tradition of running these notices. These include the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age.
Over time, placing a birth, death or marriage notice has become an important and powerful cultural practice for many Australians, continuing a tradition that is common across the Western world. Aside from the official births, deaths and marriages register, it serves as the informal public record for important cultural milestones and celebrations. The column includes announcements of important birthdays, wedding anniversaries, engagements, funeral notices and an in memoriam section. Such notices are published in newspapers that serve the places where people live or have social or genealogical ties. Newspapers generally charge a fee to publish this content, which represents a regular source of revenue, although this information is generally considered a source of ‘news’ rather than advertising content among readers. Death notices published in this section differ from the obituary, which tends to be written and sourced by journalists about people considered to have contributed to public life.
The first official death notice recorded in the Australian press appeared in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on the back page of its 5 March 1803 edition. The typography of births, deaths and marriages began with the recording of factual information about a birth or death, including the name of the person(s) involved and the residential address of the next of kin.
During the late 1800s, these notices often assumed pride of place in the first column on the front page. They remained there until the turn of the century (although the Melbourne Argus kept births, deaths and marriage notices on the front page until as late as 1937), coinciding with the rise of the industrial model of news and the ‘professional’ journalist. The funeral notice, which tended to run on a separate page until the mid-1900s, became a reliable source of information for people to find out when and where a funeral would take place. Newspapers were eager to ensure the accuracy and legitimacy of this section as an important public record. The Argus provided a notice in the late 1800s informing readers ‘that in order to guard against imposition, notices of births, marriages and deaths must be authenticated by some respectable person in Melbourne’.
During World Wars I and II, newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald introduced a ‘Roll of Honour’ to pay tribute to the fallen within the births, deaths and marriages col￼umns. It was around this time that poetry was introduced into death notices, with grieving relatives and friends writing their own verse or borrowing from popular British literature. By the 1940s, there was an increase in the number of death notices placed for the same individual by different family members and friends. Since then, placing a death notice in a newspaper as a tribute to a family member, friend or colleague has become an important ritualistic practice.
The column has endured a bumpy shift into the digital news space, however: while it remains a fixture in the print edition of many newspapers, it can be difficult to locate in some online editions. The importance of births, deaths and marriage notices to Australian newspapers has received little interest from journalism and media scholars, largely because it tends to be delegitimised by the journalistic field as a form of advertising rather than news.
REF: K. Hess, ‘Making a Connection: Reconceptualising Australia’s Small Commercial Newspapers and Their Relationship to Social Capital’ (PhD thesis, 2014).