When someone dies, it’s customary for a local publication to print an obituary describing their life and providing information about funeral services.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is the Meaning of Necrology?
- What Is a Necrology Service?
- Why Do Necrologies Exist?
- What Is the Study of Necrology?
- How to Find a Necrology
Much like an obituary section of a local newspaper, a necrology is a list of deaths. But there are a few technical differences. Read on to explore the semantics of the term and its origins.
What Is the Meaning of Necrology?
Sometimes “necrology” and “obituary” are interchangeable, but not always. This guide will primarily focus on the ways necrologies differ from standard obituaries, and how they serve unique purposes in various circumstances.
Necrology actually has two common definitions. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a synonym for an obituary. That said, it’s rare these days for people to use the term in this capacity, as obituary is a word most of us are much more familiar with.
The second definition of necrology isn’t far off from the first, but it has a key difference. Obituaries tend to tailor to a local region. A necrology, on the other hand, will usually list recently deceased people who shared membership in a particular organization, field, or another type of group. For example, in the past, it wasn’t uncommon for universities like Harvard to publish regular necrologies of alumni.
Necrology in a sentence
The following examples will help you better understand the meaning of necrology:
- “The historian consulted an 1850 Harvard University Necrology necrology to determine the true year of the professor’s passing.”
- “We’re sorry for your loss. We appreciate the contributions your loved one made to our organization, and request permission to include their name when we publish our annual necrology later this year.”
- “A Catholic Church necrology from the period indicates a relatively high rate of deaths among members, perhaps as a result of exposure to illnesses in regions where they were doing missionary work at the time.”
- “To learn more about the death of an ancestor, you can consult a necrology of an organization to which they belonged, if such a necrology exists.”
We derive the word necrology from the Latin term “necrologium.” The meaning of both terms is essentially the same, but as is often the case, the spelling and pronunciation changed over time.
What Is a Necrology Service?
A necrology service (also known as a necrological service) is a form of a memorial service that differs from traditional funeral and memorial services in several key ways.
A typical funeral or memorial will focus on the emotions of the mourners. In many instances, it will also involve some form of religious ritual or emphasis. Additionally, although it’s possible to host a funeral for two people if they died together and were very close in life, in the vast majority of cases, the focus of a funeral or memorial will be a single individual.
A necrology service is different in the following key ways:
- Emphasis: A necrology service can involve a degree of emphasis on religion depending on the context in which it occurs. However, instead of highlighting emotions and memories, a necrology service may be a more formal occasion that involves sharing basic facts regarding a person’s life and death.
- Purpose: The general purpose of a funeral is to respectfully put someone to rest and help surviving loved ones move on. The purpose of a necrology service may have more to do with recordkeeping and sharing information.
- Number of individuals: A single individual can also be the focus of a necrology service. That said, there are often exceptions. For example, it’s not uncommon for some fraternal societies and similar organizations to hold annual necrology services. During these services, they may announce the deaths of members who passed away since the last service. They might also use this opportunity to discuss their contributions to the organization.
For example, if you were a member of an international organization with thousands of members, you probably wouldn’t know the names of all members. Still, you might want to know when other members have passed on. You could thus attend an annual necrology service to learn this information. You’d also know that when you die, members of the organization will cite your contributions during their annual necrology service.
Why Do Necrologies Exist?
Necrologies can serve many different purposes, from the mundane and practical to the personal. The following are some of the more noteworthy.
The vast majority of people will never be famous enough for anyone to write popular biographies of them. After they die, and after all those who knew them pass away, it’s possible for history to forget their names, as if they never existed.
A necrology guards against this. It makes sure there is at least some record of a person’s life. While you could argue that a birth certificate and similar documentation also serve this purpose, you could also argue that preserving information about a person’s death is just as important as preserving information about a person’s life.
Again, necrologies usually relate to specific organizations or groups. A member of a particular group might want to follow the lives of other members they’ve lost touch with.
A necrology also helps in this way. It ensures members of groups can learn when other members have passed away and have some closure. They might want this information so they can reach out to the loved ones of a particular member to offer their condolences, or they might simply be curious to know who among the group is still alive.
Providing funeral information
While the traditional meaning of the word necrology pertains to a list of recently deceased people who belonged to a specific group, it’s technically acceptable to use the term to refer to any list of recently deceased people in a given area, similar to the obituary section of a newspaper.
That means a necrology could help people learn about where and when a funeral service will be. This is helpful simply because there are instances when loved ones might not know to contact a specific person to share this information with them.
For example, maybe someone lives near an old classmate. Even if they stopped actively communicating with each other later in life, they might still value the friendship to some degree, but their families might not know much about the relationship, and therefore wouldn’t know to alert that friend when their loved one dies. A necrology can offer this information to such old friends in these instances.
A reminder of mortality
Necrologies don’t serve the same purpose for all people. For instance, although people of all ages may struggle to confront their own mortality, overcoming this struggle is often particularly important for the elderly, who know they may be nearing the ends of their lives.
A necrology can help old folks manage these feelings. When faced with a list of deceased of a similar age, our elders may reckon with the idea of their name appearing in the obituary section. Some may find this makes accepting the inevitability of death somewhat easier.
Many researchers also turn to necrologies. A researcher might want to know more about the people who died in a given area during a turbulent time in history, they may be researching death trends, or they might want to confirm information about when and where a particular historical figure died.
Necrologies can ensure they have a legitimate resource to use for these purposes.
What Is the Study of Necrology?
This overview has thus far covered necrologies that serve as lists letting members of an organization or special group know when previous members have passed away. However, necrology can also refer to a field of study.
Necrology is essentially the study of death. It may include studying such topics as the physical stages of death, mortality statistics, and the way tissues in the body change after someone has died, among others.
This usage of the word necrology is less common than the usage primarily covered here. It’s most common in the medical field.
However, there are instances when the work of this type of necrologist overlaps with the type of necrology this blog post has covered. For example, a necrologist may be conducting research pertaining to death and mortality trends in a certain region during a particular time in history. If so, they might consult relevant necrologies to learn more about who died during that time and in that place.
Perhaps a necrology from a religious organization indicates members of certain religious groups perhaps died relatively often during a certain period when they were actively working to help people suffering from communicable illnesses. This could indicate to a necrologist that exposure to those illnesses contributed to a rise in deaths among members of a religious organization or sect.
That’s just one example. The main point to understand is that, while the study of necrology in this context means something different than what this blog post focuses on most, a necrology that’s a list of death announcements can nevertheless be very helpful to a necrologist in some circumstances. Specifically, it can be helpful when a necrologist is studying historical mortality trends.
How to Find a Necrology
Like searching for an obituary, the way you search for a necrology will depend on a range of factors, including what type of necrology you’re seeking and why you want to find it.
These are a few of the ways you might go about the process.
Check the paper
If you only think of a necrology as a list of the recently deceased in a given area, and not necessarily of those who belonged to a particular organization or group, finding a necrology is usually as simple as finding a local publication with an obituary section and flipping to it.
There are several reasons some people check this section of their local papers regularly. Sometimes elderly people check the obituaries to see if they know any of the deceased. Historically, during times when death was prevalent in a given region or country, such as famines, some people checked necrologies to learn who had succumbed to the troubles plaguing them.
You may be surprised to find how many organizations publish their necrologies on the internet.
If you’re looking for a necrology from a specific organization, Google it first to see what comes up.
Contact the organization
Don’t worry if your Google search doesn’t yield any results. The organization you’re researching may publish a necrology in another format, such as a physical publication or an email newsletter.
Visit their website to see if it offers any information on this topic. If it doesn’t, you can still reach out to the organization directly to ask if they publish necrologies, and where you can find them if they do.
Use Google for historical research
You might be interested in finding a necrology from the past. Maybe you’re conducting research for a school or work project, or maybe you simply want to confirm information about an ancestor’s passing.
This is another instance in which Google can help. Both Google Books and Google Scholar make finding archived necrologies from various organizations—universities, churches, clubs—fairly easy.
There’s of course no guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for through Google. However, you could also contact local public or university libraries to ask if they have any necrology archives.
Depending on the circumstances, you might even be able to contact the relevant organization or community department to ask if they archive their necrologies.
If you're still searching for an obituary and happen to be in Canada, read our guide on how to find a Canadian obituary.
Necrology: Preserving Essential Information
Keep in mind that sometimes, a necrology just means an individual obituary. If you’re concerned about writing an obituary, or who’s going to write your obituary, check out our resources on the topics. And if you're hosting a virtual funeral or memorial service, some platforms like GatheringUs have specialists who can guide and support you through the planning process.
In general, however, a necrology serves to preserve information about not just one life, but many lives, reminding us we all pass away eventually. But just because we all pass doesn’t mean the world will forget we were ever here.
- Barnes, J.A. “The gentle art of necrology.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Berghahn Books, 1987, jstor.org
- “necrology.” Merriam-Webster, merriam-webster.com
- Palmer, Joseph. “Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851-52 to 1862-63.” John Wilson and Son, 1864, Google Books.