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Death and the Internet

April 2011

A recent death in my family has led me to notice just how the internet has begun to creep even into that most mortal corner of our world.  The confirming of the death by doctors and notifying the Registrar still has to be done in person, thank goodness; one of the great barriers to fraud and chicanery is the requirement for an honest public official to be convinced by another person that some event has really taken place.  The same rule applies to voting, in my opinion; I hope that is never done electronically.

Beyond that, however, much can be achieved online; funerals can be booked, service sheets created, lawyers consulted.  But that is not what has particularly struck me; it’s the way the news is spread that is changing.

As Oldie readers will know, traditionally it starts with an announcement in the newspapers.  We had planned to use The Telegraph and The Times, until we discovered the price (around £500 in each case) so we ditched The Times (smaller circulation), especially once we discovered that if you are a subscriber to The Telegraph you can get a 50% discount.  It only brings the price down from exploitative to outrageous, but is a great help.

The whole process can be done online, which gives you the chance to see what it will look like in print, and completely avoids the possibility of misspellings, dodgy punctuation and the like.

These days, however, that’s only the beginning.  As well as the paper (circulation 700,000 or so, and thrown away tomorrow), the notice appears online at (potential viewers: unlimited; time available to view: also unlimited).  It stays visible, and can be searched for, until further notice; the current archive seems to go back to 2005, which I suppose is when they began putting them online.

I imagine this will be a major resource for genealogists in time, as well as for family connections. 

Then the internet steps forward again and offers more: press a little button on the announcement page and anyone can instantly post a copy of the notice on their Facebook page, or email a copy to it to anyone, or announce it on Twitter and many of other similar options

This may not mean much to a lot of Oldie readers, but whether we like it or not, Facebook is rapidly becoming the main way younger chaps communicate online; and if you post a death/marriage/birth announcement there, in any form, the news spreads faster than you can imagine, all around the world.  Twitter is used by many Oldie readers already, even amongst the oldest ones.

So far, this is just a development of an old method; an old fashioned formal announcement shared a variety of new ways.  But consider this.  A while ago I wrote about the development of online family tree sites; you can read it again at if you are short of a thing to do.

At that time I tried out, and built up a large family tree on it.  Other members of my family have since joined in and added dates, names and other stuff.  It’s all fairly private, and relies completely on trust to make sure the information is accurate, but it is growing into a fairly useful family record (not least because of the birthday reminders it can send out to you). 

But here is the point: a day after my relative had died, the record on the family tree had been accurately updated by one of the contributors.  It was the first public announcement of his death, as far as I know, beating The Telegraph by a week.

This means that anyone who has connected to the family tree will have received a notification of the “change of status”, if they have asked for that service, long before the newspaper was published.

What does this mean?  In the long term it probably means the end of the newspaper death announcement, once the current Oldie generation has dropped off the perch.  Newspapers sell fewer copies every day, and Facebook, Genoom, Twitter and their ilk gain users all the time.  On top of that, an announcement in The Times can easily cost £400 or more; the online competitors are free, quicker and last longer.  A pretty unstoppable trend, I would think.