When someone dies, it’s customary for a local publication to print an obituary describing their life and providing information about funeral services.
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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.
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.
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.
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, www.jstor.org/stable/23817359?seq=1
- “necrology.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/necrology#learn-more
- Palmer, Joseph. “Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851-52 to 1862-63.” John Wilson and Son, 1864, Google Books.