Obit Archives Reveal Rise of Celebrity Culture

If you want to track the rise of our celebrity-obsessed culture, look no further than the obituaries.

Researchers found that during the 20th century, more and more obituaries of entertainers and athletes turned up in the New York Times' "notable deaths" section, mirroring a growing public fascination with celebrities. At the same time, interest in the deaths of scientists, inventors, industrialists and religious figures seemed to fade from 1900 to 2000.

Sociology researchers at the University of South Carolina analyzed obituaries in the New York Times from the same 20 randomly selected days in 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975 and 2000. From this sample, they ranked how much attention was given to the deaths of people in certain occupations in each year. They found that obituaries of entertainers and athletes marched steadily to the top in rank — from seventh in 1900, to fifth in 1925, to third in 1950 and first in 1975 and 2000; in 2000, celeb athletes and entertainers accounted for 28 percent of obituaries in the newspaper, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said the number of obituaries for public figures in manufacturing and business halved over the century. Similarly, religious obituaries fell from fourth place in mid-century to last in rank, and the researchers said they did not find a single notable death article for a religious figure in their sample for the year 2000.

"Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries," lead researcher Patrick Nolan said in a statement from the University of South Carolina. "They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival," added Nolan, who details the research in the journal Sociation Today.

As for why we're obsessed with celebrities, psychologists say it boils down evolution -- We're social creatures, who evolved in an environment where it was beneficial to pay attention to the top dogs. As such, celebrity obsession may be an outgrowth of that ancestral tendency, something no doubt nourished by the media and technology. And according to research reported in 2008 by Elizabeth Barry of the University of Warwick in England, modern-day celebrity worship may trace back to the rise of newspapers and magazines, along with the popularity of obituaries in 18th-century Britain.

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