The art of obituary writing has been evident since the earliest days of Australian journalism. In the 200 years since, however, obituaries have experienced a haphazard history, have been irregular in appearance and have lacked authority in rendition. They enjoyed a sustained prominence from the late 1860s to the early 1920s, then fell into general neglect before some measure of revival in the mid-1990s.
According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (2005), a legitimate obituary—rather than a simple report of death—offers an assessment of the subject’s achievements in the form of a biographical account illustrated by anecdotes and a character sketch. Under this definition, the first obituary published in Australia was that of Samuel McDonald, a sergeant of the 93rd Regiment, who was ‘six feet ten inches in height, four feet round the chest … and always disliked being stared at’. This biography in miniature, purloined from an unidentified British newspaper, appeared in the second edition of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 12 March 1803. The Gazette’s original obituary debut would follow in the 56th edition, on 25 March 1804. Reporting the life and death of a former convict, James Bloodworth, it omitted any reference to his 1788 transportation (for stealing a sheep), concentrating instead on his service as the colony’s building superintendent.
An improved technique, offering a more complete portraiture, became apparent much later in the Melbourne obituaries of two explorers. In 1869, the Argus acknowledged the discoveries of Captain Charles Sturt, applauding his courage when assailed by ‘hunger, thirst and disease … scurvy and ophthalmia’. A similar talent for blending colour with fact is found in the 1872 Age obituary of John King, a survivor of the ill-starred Burke and Wills expedition of 1860–61. The Age told its readers: ‘King, soon after the expedition left Melbourne, saw that Burke was not the man to have charge of such an enterprise. He was too brave and too rash … [yet] King venerated the memory of Burke and for some years after his return to the settled districts he could not hear his name mentioned without shedding tears.’
This willingness to capture character and mood in measured delivery would last until the trauma of World War I changed the news agenda. From that time, the obituary gradually lost standing; lengthy casualty lists from the battlefields and their accompanying brief tributes rendered pre-war practice both impracticable and unfashionable. The obituary rallied briefly in the immediate post-war years, then faded again as newspapers underwent further remodelling. Pictorial content and display advertising grew spectacularly, gossip columns emerged and sports coverage flourished. The obituary atrophied in terms of its allocated space and influence.
There would be no recovery for another 70 years. It followed the introduction of computerised typesetting, with supplements that increased page numbers significantly and inspired a greater engagement with opinion pieces and feature writing. The new newspapers, confronted by the challenge of filling those pages and intent upon offering a contrast to radio and television’s advantages in breaking news, turned once more to the obituary. From 1993, led by Melbourne’s Herald Sun and the Australian, eight newspapers would initiate a dedicated obituary section over a 10-year period.
There were early signs that it might be more than an exercise in broad-acreage. The Australian adopted a candid approach from the start, in 1993 dispatching a corrupt ex-magistrate with these words: ‘Murray Frederick Farquhar … epitomised the unfortunate nexus between Sydney’s notorious underworld and its so-called upper world.’ The Canberra Times also demonstrated candour, passing this unfettered posthumous judgement on one of its own journalists, Bruce Juddery, in 2003: ‘Nearly everything he touched outside of mainstream journalism … was a disaster for him, as, increasingly, was the chaos put on his life by his abuse of alcohol’.
After the first decade of the 21st century, obituary publication in Australia again showed evidence of a decline. Column space in the Australian was reduced drastically, with the appearance of an obituary occasioned only by celebrity death; the Herald Sun—the erstwhile pioneer of the modern revival—dropped its dedicated page entirely. Elsewhere—notably at the Adelaide Advertiser—homilies submitted by relatives of the deceased became commonplace; the line between obituary and eulogy in such circumstances was too often blurred.
Consequently, prevailing standards and credentials remain compromised: daily publication is not always assured; offerings from amateur contributors are in some instances printed with minimal editing; and there is a significant reliance on material syndicated by overseas sources. Those misfortunes can be attributed largely to an absence of investment. With the exception of the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s newspapers are reluctant to devote significant staffing and budgetary resources to obituary composition. The potential for obituaries to serve as valid instruments of Australia’s historical record has been circumscribed accordingly.
REF: N. Starck, Life After Death (2006).