The lives we choose to remember: a quantitative analysis of newspaper obituaries

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Abstract

Collective memory is intertwined with remembering the dead. Systematic forgetting affects certain ethnic groups, nationalities and classes disproportionately. This study assesses whom we choose as our heroes by commemorating them in obituaries. It is the first cross-national, historical approach to this subject.

Constant structures are shown in different Western countries over time in terms of the selection of individuals for this honour. In particular, there are still a high proportion of the subjects in British newspapers who have attended private schools and Oxford and Cambridge. The impact of elite higher educational establishments is also evident, on a reduced scale, in Le Monde and The New York Times. Yet certain signs of movement within the obituary world can also be detected: women start to appear in their own right, the Third World begins to be represented and a wider array of occupations have become the source of obituary portraits.

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