An Archaeology of Death Notices: Unearthing the Culture Shaping Death Notices in Aotearoa New Zealand

Ray Nairn, Angela Moewaka Barnes, Tim McCreanor


Researchers have established that the local social or moral order impacts on aspects of death announcements in various societies, though few have consequently sought to problematise that order. Those studies appear to presume the homogeneity of the studied society although modern societies typically include diverse peoples. This article assesses whether death notices in Aotearoa New Zealand are circumscribed by the dominant social/cultural order or reflect its multicultural character. Examining a large number of notices from the New Zealand Herald, we found most incorporated the same structural elements and employed a common vocabulary, evidence that the writers were guided by a single social order. Utilising published research and death notices deviating from the standard we were able to identify cultural characteristics of that local social order that were being rendered ordinary in the sample of death notices. Identified features of that dominant order are: it fixes a gulf between past and present; it limits relationships of the deceased to their immediate family; it expects positive portrayals of the deceased; and overtly religious language is largely absent. Underpinning these notices were two cultural characteristics: an understanding of time as a unidirectional flow of empty instants and a taken-for-granted a-social individuality.


death notices, local moral order, time as a flow, asocial individuality, New Zealand culture

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