Sociological study: NYT obituaries have more celebrity deaths over the decades

Here is a unique place to look for American’s obsession with celebrities: examine the “Notable Deaths” section of the New York Times since 1900.

Sociology researchers at the University of South Carolina analyzed obituaries in the New York Times from the same 20 randomly selected days in 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975 and 2000. From this sample, they ranked how much attention was given to the deaths of people in certain occupations in each year. They found that obituaries of entertainers and athletes marched steadily to the top in rank — from seventh in 1900, to fifth in 1925, to third in 1950 and first in 1975 and 2000; in 2000, celeb athletes and entertainers accounted for 28 percent of obituaries in the newspaper, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said the number of obituaries for public figures in manufacturing and business halved over the century. Similarly, religious obituaries fell from fourth place in mid-century to last in rank, and the researchers said they did not find a single notable death article for a religious figure in their sample for the year 2000.

“Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries,” lead researcher Patrick Nolan said in a statement from the University of South Carolina. “They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival,” added Nolan, who details the research in the journal Sociation Today.

So have celebrities replaced some of religion?

It would also be interesting to see whether the New York Times did this consciously and if so, how exactly this conversation went. Did readers actually suggest they wanted to see more celebrity news in the deaths section?