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Obituary Photos are Getting Younger


An interesting genealogy study from Ohio State University suggests that obituary photos are showing a growing bias against aging faces. The study conducted by Keith Anderson, assistant professor of social work at the university, and his graduate student Jina Han examined newspaper obituary photos in Ohio over a thirty year period from 1967 to 1997. What they found was that “age-inaccurate” obituary photos had increased significantly since the 1960s. An age-inaccurate obituary photo was defined by the authors to be one where the deceased was more than 15 years older than the estimated age in the obituary photograph. Interestingly enough, women were more than twice as likely as men to have an obituary photo that was age-inaccurate.

Obituary photos are typically chosen by either the spouse or adult children of the deceased. Often obituary photos are chosen by family members to show the deceased at the peak of their life. The fact that obituary photos are getting younger suggests that “we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the 60s” according to Anderson. Age-inaccurate obituary photos have steadily risen from 17% of all obituary photos in 1967 to 36% in 1997. Furthermore, the researchers found that the odds of having an age-inaccurate photo increased with the age of the deceased.

In most societies across time, prestige often came with age. Growing old was something to be celebrated by the few who were able to achieve such a status. Consider the image below. It is a marble funerary head of a Roman citizen from the First Century B.C. Notice the aged, bony structure, deeply etched wrinkles, tight-lipped mouth and intense frown. The image prominently shows both the age and the personality of the deceased.

Roman funerary head

Although technology has evolved over the millennium from carved marble to photographs, the concept of an obituary image is very old. Those cultures that exhibited images of their dead usually did so in a realistic style that accentuated individual features and the effects of age.

The researchers pointed out that in modern times people are living longer with chronic illnesses. As a result, the family may wish to show the deceased as they appeared in younger, healthier times. However, they also point out that this is unlikely to account for all the shift towards younger obituary photos. According to the authors, the creeping anti-ageism identified in the US study of obituary photos suggests from a genealogical perspective that society may be evolving the definition of a person’s peak year towards an age much younger than the year in which the person died.

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