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In Death, Celebrity Trumps Achievement

Fascination with celebrities had grown during the 20th century, while interest in achievers such as scientists, inventors or industrialists and religious figures had waned. . / Credit: Tombstones image via Shutterstock

Business is a dead-end, at least when it comes to claiming your place in the sun in the obituary pages when you leave this mortal coil. We've long suspected that celebrity trumps achievement in the public imagination, but now a university sociologist offers proof positive that this trend even extends to the obits section in the newspaper of record, The New York Times.

Justin Bieber and Katy Perry have got a better shot at getting a rousing sendoff from The Gray Lady than a run-of-the-mill captain of industry.

University of South Carolina sociologist Patrick Nolan decided to test the notion that public fascination with celebrities had grown during the 20th century while interest in achievers or producers such as scientists, inventors, industrialists and religious figures had waned.

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He analyzed 100 years of obits in The New York Times from 1900 to 2000, working from the newspaper's "notable deaths" section. Even Nolan, who conducted the study with doctoral student Timothy Bertoni, was surprised at the how rapidly celebrities increased in status among the dead last century.

Obits of entertainers and athletes steadily climbed in rank across the 20th century, moving from seventh place in 1900, to fifth in 1925, up to third in 1950 and then achieved first place in 1975 and 2000, at which point they accounted for 28 percent of obits.

Despite a slight increase in 1925 and 1950, religious obits fell from fourth to last in rank. In fact, there wasn’t a single notable religious obit in 2000. A similar pattern was seen among manufacturing and industry-related obits, and business/finance obits “halved over the century,” Nolan said.

"Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries," Nolan said. "The magnitude of these trends is seismic. While the Greeks may have looked to their gods for guidance and entertainment, we’ve turned increasingly to our celebrities — entertainers and athletes."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.

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