How Kerala newspapers used obituaries to bond with readers

How Kerala newspapers used obituaries to bond with readers

How Kerala newspapers used obituaries to bond with readers

Kerala: Daily newspapers around the world carry obituaries. They are embedded within the newspaper culture, much like classified advertisements. While it's usually a paid feature, many regional newspapers in Kerala have been carrying obituaries for free for the last five decades.

After Hindi and English, Malayalam newspapers have the most circulation in the country. Senior journalists in Kerala say that publishing obituary news for free has created a bond with the people.

Regional newspapers would have paid obituaries but in 1970, the regional newspapers introduced district editions, increasing the number of people involved with the dailies. Publishing obituaries for free was a marketing strategy-turned-social service, said Thomas Jacob, former news director of Malayala Manorama, the most circulated newspaper in the state.

As competition between newspapers grew, many daily newspapers started publishing obituaries of readers’ family member(s) for free to create a bond with them, he added. This practice evolved over time and newspapers started publishing colour photos and details of family members.

The number of people requesting to publish the obituary of a family member also increased, while many demanded to publish it in district pages so that it reaches their acquaintances. It compelled newspapers to dedicate an entire page to obituaries.

Started by Malayala Manorama, the trend of dedicating a page to obituaries was initiated in Kottayam district, especially to cover the Christian deaths, Jacob mentioned.

He added that for Hindus, they would have a ceremony after 14 (sometimes even 15 or 16) days after the death of a family member and would need to invite their relatives for the ceremony, and that’s how obituaries became a part of Kerala newspaper culture.

Fact-checking nightmare

On average, Malayalam newspapers carry 60 obituaries every day on their dedicated page. Even in the age of social media, people rely on newspapers to ensure authenticity.

At the same time, the page making process has become more complex. There are often last-minute changes in the obituaries page. Newspapers cannot compromise on fact-checking. In 2017, a 75-year-old man from Kannur published the news of his death. The man himself directly went to the newspaper offices and provided necessary details to publish the obituary with one of his old photos and then went into hiding. 

A Chandrasekhar, Assistant Professor of Journalism at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Southern Regional Centre, Kottayam, stated that fake obituaries ended up being a headache. But now, he said, the newspapers have smartened up.

He explained that newspaper agents used to collect the obituaries themselves earlier, but now anyone can contact the newspaper office and give the details, provided the one who contacts should give their address and contact details. After that, a dedicated sub-editor will crosscheck the details and then only decide the editions in which the obituary should be carried, he added.

Corona connect

Even during the Covid-19 crisis, the obituaries helped the state health department in tracking cases. 

Dr Amjith Rajeevan, assistant surgeon at a primary healthcare centre in Nilackal in Pathanamthitta district, and also a member of the Pathanamthitta Media Surveillance Centre, mentioned that during the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in Kerala, the state health department formed a media surveillance team that would trace positive cases. He said scrutinising the daily obituary page used to be a part of their 

He added that they would trace pneumonia deaths and would ensure that they were not exposed to coronavirus as both present themselves with similar symptoms.


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