Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Melancholia, A Lover’s Rejection, and Fortune Teller’s Reading: A linguistic analysis of suicide obituaries in a historical newspaper

Melancholia, A Lover’s Rejection, and Fortune Teller’s Reading: A linguistic analysis of suicide obituaries in a historical newspaper

Haley Scott

Obituaries and other death notifications such as funeral announcements and news reports have long been the method of death notice for the public. Typically including information ranging from date of birth and death, the deceased’s greatest accomplishments, late and surviving family, and occasional cause and/or manner of death, they provide insight into cultural perspectives of death. By examining aspects such as linguistic devices used and positive or negative language association, patterns in how attitudes surrounding death, specifically in cases of suicide, can be identified. This paper seeks to address the various linguistic ways in which suicide in obituaries have been recognized. Utilizing 254 historical New York Times suicide notifications between 1858 and 1922, a database was constructed documenting year of publication, age and sex of the deceased, the method and description of death, words used to describe the act of suicide itself, and circumstances surrounding the death, in order to examine the extent of evasive methods of death discourse. Death notifications within this paper are shown to serve more than the sole purpose of public notice. Explicit details of suicide notifications allow for readers to comment on death and discuss a taboo subject without consequence. By exploring the broader social context for suicide and the perception of death at the time of this historical death notification study, one can begin to understand how views of suicide, death, grief, and death-related language have changed over time.

April 2, 2018 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Exploring the discourse around suicide in the public sphere seems a good way to understand society’s thoughts on death and grief, but also how that contrasts with their thoughts on life. In answering these questions, this paper seems a good place to start.

    Comment by Jami | April 8, 2018 | Reply

  2. It would be interesting to see where we are at now in this discourse. There is a lot more discussion surrounding suicide but it is still taboo is some ways. This is a great topic and one that still deserves our attention.

    Comment by Craig Meiners | April 17, 2018 | Reply

    • Definitely in my directions for further research!

      Comment by Haley Scott | April 24, 2018 | Reply

  3. Very interesting! I’d also like to see how obits have changed regarding suicides over time. I think it’s become more common now to not mention it at all, but you’d need to know individuals’ actual cause of death and compare to their obits which might be harder to do.

    Comment by Carly Slank | April 19, 2018 | Reply

  4. Wow, as a historical archaeologist who spends a great deal of time using historic newspapers for my research, I find this very interesting. One of the main themes in my fields of anthropology is that in order for one to understand the present one must come to understand the the past. I feel like your research fits into this concept.

    Comment by Andrew McKinney | April 21, 2018 | Reply

  5. It is surprising to me that obituaries, especially from the time period that you were examining, acknowledged suicide as the cause of death. I would have thought that, especially back then, families of the deceased would have wanted to cover up suicide since it was, and still largely is, so taboo. Was there a correlation between the obituaries that mentioned suicide and the deceased not having family or having family that was not conservative? Or did the family members not play a role in determining whether suicide was mentioned or not?

    Comment by Samantha Spolarich | April 23, 2018 | Reply

    • It was very surprising to me too! At first I wanted to look at what kind of euphemisms were used to avoid the use of suicide or if they were even discussed at all. Upon the first few notifications I read, however, that totally changed my research question haha. Within historical newspaper obits and reports the staff writers were the ones to type them up- not the family. There wasn’t a correlation between those with or without family and the mention of suicide- it was all over the board: celebrities, drifters, businessmen, homemakers, mothers/fathers…

      Comment by Haley Scott | April 24, 2018 | Reply

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