It's almost cliché that some people read the obituary section religiously in their local newspaper. Part of following the local news is knowing who mourns, and who is no longer around for friendship, charity, shopping, or irritation. The cast of characters is at least as important as what they're doing. Obituaries accord significance beyond ceremony to the passing of a loved one. It's a chance to tell the world how amazing he or she was, what wonders they accomplished, with which people they entertwined their life across the generations.
Obituaries are a novice's genre. Only the occasional journalist or someone who has lost too many loved ones will end up needing to write many obituaries in a life. It is a form of prose learned and practiced in grief, which makes it a very odd little genre of writing indeed. Birth announcements are comparatively easy: they're composed of statistics. A newborn child has rarely accomplished anything else. An obituary, however, records a life lived, however long, however short. It's a paean to accomplishment, limited by the necessary brevity of a newspaper's published word counts. The author wants to do their subject justice, but rarely has experience in the composition form in which they're writing.
I don't mean to say that most obituaries are poorly written. I don't read many of them, and those I've read lately have been written by erudite individuals in honor of much-loved relatives. But this is one genre of writing in which I wouldn't want to wish accomplishment to anyone but a journalist.
The thing is, I've never thought of obituaries as a formal prose form before, but it is. There are rules which govern its form, its length, its content. Most of us have - one way or another - read a decent sampling of the genre, and have a sense for it.
Two things struck me today about the obituary genre.
Firstly, it must be a very young one. It presumes a universality of literacy which did not exist until the nineteenth century. It requires a literate, historically-minded survivor in every family. It requires the enabling of cheap, widespread local publications, generally newspapers, occasionally magazines. Obituaries are temporally-bounded: to make sense, they must be published shortly after a death is known of.
Secondly, of course its roots must lie in biography more generally. Biography is a much less bounded genre, of which obituaries are a subset. But biography is not constrained by time. Biographies can be written of those still living and those who died thousands of years ago. Encyclopedia entries frequently resemble obituaries, but without the immediacy, and with a different set of rule constraints. So do short biographies, such as those I spent part of today compiling.
Agostino Ramelli. b. 1531. d. c. 1610. Italian military engineer who spent his career working for Gian Giacomo de' Medici, the Marquis de Marignan; and the Duc d'Anjou, the eventual Henri III of France. Author of Diverse and Artificial Machines (Self-published). Relatives unknown.