Book Review: The New York Times Book of the Dead

You know you’ve arrived – and departed – when your life is chronicled in a news obituary in The New York Times. The New York Times Book of the Dead, which pulls together 320 print and 10,000 digital obituaries of extraordinary people, also illustrates how the news obituary has changed since the newspaper’s first such article in 1851.

The New York Times Book of the Dead and its online counterpart offer a valuable resource for researchers, historians, obituary writers, and those who appreciate a “you are there” approach to the life stories of extraordinary people. It can inspire funeral directors and families to take their obituary writing to a higher level.

News vs. Paid Obituaries
Funeral directors know, but sometimes the general public doesn’t, the difference between a news obituary and a paid newspaper death notice. The funeral home facilitates placing a paid death notice/obituary for grieving families when they make funeral arrangements.

A news obituary is a story or article a newspaper reporter writes about a notable person. The family doesn’t pay for a news obituary, but they also have no say regarding what gets written about the deceased.

The factors that make a person’s death newsworthy can vary widely. The categories in The New York Times Book of the Dead include World, American and Business Leaders, Groundbreakers, Thinkers, Athletes, Warriors and The Media. It features notable luminaries from the literary world, stage and screen, popular music, classical music, dance, and the visual arts.

The first recognized news obituary published in The New York Times was of Thomas H. Gallaudet, who died September 10, 1851. Gallaudet was the pioneer of Deaf-Mute Instruction in the United States.

The Online Obituary Website
For production reasons, no death after June 3, 2016, was recorded in the print book. The two inch-thick hardback only holds 320 stories. But modern technology and the Internet offer many more New York Times life stories in digital form.

Within the print book cover is a USB port key. When inserted in a computer, it opens up access to http://nytbookofthedead.com/. Once the user registers, one can spend many hours reviewing more than 10,000 life stories of remarkable people going back in time more than 150 years.

The Home page features rotating obituaries of deaths “on this day” in prior years. You can browse by 44 categories, 26 of which have sub-groupings; by year going back to 1860; by name; or choose Random for a “surprise me” obituary. You can save specific obituaries to a personal online vault for easy retrieval. The site also offers popular obit suggestions and tracks your recently-viewed stories.

Stylistic Changes Over Time
William McDonald, the editor of this collection, states in the Introduction, “Obituaries by definition evoke the past, and when written decades or centuries ago, they echo those lost worlds in their diction, their vocabulary, their styles of punctuation and capitalization, and their tone, be it eloquent, turgid, blunt or florid. ‘The rays of the morning sun fell across the cottage porch upon a family waiting only for death,’ The Times reported in its melodramatic account of the death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885…”

President Grant’s death was reported as if an insider was actually there in the bedroom of his home in Mount McGregor, New York. It included a story about the general writing a note on June 24 listing three possible burial places – West Point, Illinois, or New York City. His son said he didn’t like his father talking of such things, that there was no need to do so. The general tore the list into tiny bits, threw the pieces into a waste basket, and returned to his sick room without speaking. He died of throat cancer a month later on July 23.

Even in 1885, families avoided discussing funeral planning, despite a loved one’s grave illness. The book notes that accompanying this news article was a biographical portrait of more than 40,000 words. Grant’s Tomb, which includes his beloved wife Julia Dent Grant, was completed and dedicated in Manhattan in 1897.

The New York Times Book of the Dead is also available as an eBook and in audio form from Hachette Audio. The print book retails for $45.00, published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.


Gail Rubin – author, speaker, journalist and death educator – connects with baby boomers using humor, funny films and a light touch on serious subjects. A Certified Thanatologist, her seminars on clearing clutter and organizing for end-of-life issues always get high marks! Download a free 50-point Executors Checklist from her website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com.

By | 2017-01-25T17:24:23+00:00 January 23rd, 2017|Featured Reading|Comments Off on Book Review: The New York Times Book of the Dead

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