Obit Photos Getting Younger and Younger

In 1967, about 17 percent of obituary photographs in one particular newspaper showed the deceased at least 15 years younger than when they died. By 1997, that figure had jumped to 36 percent.

This skewing of age in obituary photographs likely reflects changes in societal attitudes toward age, researchers say.

The data comes out of a recent study of pictures in The Plain Dealer, a daily newspaper in Cleveland. Researchers estimated the deceased's age in a total of 400 obituary photographs from 1967, 1977, 1987, and 1997. If the person was more than 15 years older at the time of death than in the photograph, the photos were labeled as "age-inaccurate."

The scientists found a pronounced bias toward youthful appearance. The effect was particularly strong for women, who were more than twice as likely as men to have an obituary photo from when they were much younger.

"Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society at a particular moment in time," said Keith Anderson, co-leader of the study and assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University. "In this case, we can get hints about our views on aging and appearance from the photographs chosen for obituaries. Our findings suggest that we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the '60s."

Anderson and graduate student Jina Han detailed the study's results in the current issue of the Omega-Journal of Death and Dying.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.