Waterfall clock and house-shaped clock, 2018.
challenge history pragmatic historian

Challenge: Finding Patterns in History

It feels like I’m stating the obvious, but history teaches all sorts of thinking skills. One of these is that it enhances our ability to see patterns.

When you’re just going through your day-to-day life, it’s easy to miss larger patterns, particularly when you don’t compare what’s happening locally to events on a statewide, national or global level. It’s the myopia of living in the now.

When you take the time to investigate an historical subject in a deep way over a broad swath of time or even to look at general movements in history over time, you start to see patterns. If you see repetitions in behavior (and you will because people like to repeat their actions), you can also discover the results of those behaviors if you look for them. If you are tempted to repeat an action that was taken in the past (and you will be tempted!), how did it turn out? If the result was a disaster or had negative effects, perhaps you’ll want to rethink your course of action.

In order to help you exercise your ability to find patterns through studying history, I’ve got a challenge for you.

Obituary Conventions

Obituaries are a fabulous encapsulation of a person’s life. Because newspapers had limited space, obituaries had to condense an entire lifetime into a few column inches (if that).

Normally, families submit obituaries that highlight the virtues and interests of the deceased, along with providing basic family information and relationships. They are typically written in such a fashion that the deceased is painted as a loving, flawless human being.

Unless, you’re this woman, who ended up with a scathing obituary written by her abandoned children. This aberrant obituary points out that obituary-writing conventions have not necessarily been consistent over time.

Here are the obituary conventions I have seen within Morrison County’s newspapers.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, only community leaders warranted any sort of obituary at all. These were usually written by newspaper staff, not family members. These obits appeared as news items, mixed in with other news of the day. There was no dedicated obituary page or section until around the 1930s or ’40s. It was at this point that other area citizens also received obituaries. Plenty of people, however, never did have an obituary published for them. I’m not sure when obituaries became articles submitted by family members, though funeral homes today often help guide the writing of obits. Our local paper does not yet charge to have an obit placed in its pages, but it is not uncommon to find newspapers requiring payment for obituaries. This requirment likely results in many families not placing obits for the deceased.

The early newspapers of the 1800s and early 1900s would sometimes boldly state the deceased’s foibles, rather than presenting a rosy view of the person. So, this idea that obituaries have always been positive is disproven by earlier obits. Another convention I have seen come and go with obits is whether a cause of death is included. Cause of death was included in earlier obits (and if you died as a result of alcoholism, your obit might call you a drunk), but this has mostly fallen out of fashion because people feel some embarassment about certain causes of death.

I had a long-time obituary indexing volunteer who noted this convention and she told her family that when she died, she wanted her cause of death listed so that those researching her life later could easily find the information. And so it was. Her obit includes her cause of death.

Challenge: Using Obituaries to Find Patterns

As you can see from this short description of the obituary conventions I have noticed, patterns are evident within these conventions. If someone asks for an obit for a regular person and that person died in the late 1800s, I’m pretty confident there won’t be an obit. If the person died after the 1930s, they likely do have an obit.

But there are other patterns that can be found through obits.

In scanning the obituaries in our local weekly paper, I found a disturbing pattern that seems to have started within the past decade. People were dying at a younger age. Rather than making it to their 70s, they were dying in their 50s and 60s. What was going on?

After noting this pattern, I began seeing news about the opioid epidemic. But, I also saw an awful lot of cancer deaths. (Cancer is one of the few causes of death that people seem to be willing to share in an obit, particularly if the deceased struggled with the disease for some time.)

If you’d been around in 1918 (provided there were obits), you’d have seen lots of obits related to the Spanish Influenza epidemic. This disease was so devastating that newspapers reported about the flu itself and notices of local deaths from the disease might appear as short notices in the Local Items section. (The Local Items section was like the Twitter of its day.)

Here’s the challenge:

Scan the obituary section of your local newspaper. If you don’t read a local newspaper, look for obits through the websites of local funeral homes.

Make note of any patterns you see.

Are people of similar age dying? If cause of death is given, do you see any similarities? Are there patterns in death dates?

Aside from obvious things, look at the interests and occupations listed for the deceased. Are there commonalities in interests and occupations between people of the same age group or geographic area?

Check out the relationships listed within the obit. Who is surviving the deceased? You can see a change in family structures over time through close relations that don’t share the same last names and the use of terms such as “partner” or “significant other” or “special friend.”

Continue scanning obituaries over several weeks and see if you notice other patterns developing. Look at the obits themselves and note the structure. What’s included in the obit? What’s left out?

Consistently reading obits in this way, with an eye toward spotting patterns, will develop one of your history-related thinking skills.