What the New York Times Obituaries Tell Us About our Country

You know you’re living in a culture of celebrity when the Twitter for the president of the United States ranks No. 6, trailing behind rock stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry by millions of followers.    But have celebrities always trumped achievers for public attention?

University of South Carolina sociologist Patrick Nolan decided to test the notion that public fascination with celebrities had grown during the 20th century while interest in achievers or producers such as scientists, inventors or industrialists and religious figures had waned.  Using The New York Times obituaries as a cultural barometer, he analyzed 100 years of obits from 1900 — 2000, working from the newspaper’s “notable deaths” section. The results of his study, “Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Apotheosis of Celebrities in 20th-century America,” appear in the summer issue of the sociological journal Sociation Today.


“Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries. 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,” Nolan said.  “The magnitude of these trends is seismic. While the Greeks may have looked to their gods for guidance and entertainment, we’ve turned increasingly to our celebrities — entertainers and athletes.”


Comparing percentages of obits in the various occupations to employment in those industries revealed a disproportionate amount of celebrity obits in the fields of entertainment and sports. The finding clearly documented a trend toward secular hedonism, he said.

This only confirms what I’ve been saying for  a long time- when a theologian or biblical scholar dies the media hardly ever notice; but when a celeb or jock breaks wind, the media can’t get enough of covering it.

Hedonism and entertainment- it’s all our world cares about.

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3 thoughts on “What the New York Times Obituaries Tell Us About our Country

  1. Jona Lendering 18 Aug 2012 at 7:24 pm

    A couple of weeks ago, there was an interesting article on Slate.com, which I cannot find again, about our shifting definition of celebrity. It pointed out that the famous people of the sixties and seventies were people who actually were capable of doing something: astronauts or scientists or sportspeople. Nowadays, you can often not say for what they are famous, and they are not known for something they can do better than others. The explanation was believed to be that we live in a more equal society; we no longer like others to excell too much. So Kim Kardashian is the perfect celebrity of our age.


    • Jim 18 Aug 2012 at 7:38 pm

      i think it reflects the banal shallowness of our day. people who really do things don’t matter and imbeciles who do nothing but entertain (whether in film, on tv, or the athletic field) are all important.


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