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Dorian Gray Lives: Obituary Photos Getting Younger

Given our society's disdain of aging, it's not surprising that many Americans strive to retain a youthful appearance well into the later stages of life. Now, it appears, that quest continues beyond the grave.
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A new study of obituary photos in a major Midwestern newspaper finds a steadily increasing percentage feature a dated view of the dearly departed. In 1967, about 17 percent of such portraits in the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed the deceased 15 or more years before his or her death. By 1997, that percentage had increased to 36 percent.

Writing in Omega, a journal focusing on death and dying, Keith Anderson of Ohio State University reports the phenomenon is particularly noticeable for women, who were more than twice as likely as men to have an age-inaccurate image accompany their death notice. These photos, he noted, are usually chosen by the deceased person's spouse or children.

These results "indicate that society's bias toward youthful appearance has persisted and grown over time, particularly in the case of older women," Anderson writes in the paper, which he co-authored with graduate student Jina Han. He adds that "this societal bias toward youth may be internalized by individuals and affect their decisions to submit photographs that are not age-accurate."

Anderson examined the first 100 photo-illustrated obituaries of local residents to appear in the Plain Dealer beginning in February 1967, 1977, 1987 and 1997. (The following year, the newspaper changed the format of its obituary pages, making direct comparisons impossible.) He estimated the age of the person in each photos — an admittedly subjective undertaking, although he is confident in its accuracy — and compared it to the person's age at his or her death.

If there was a gap of more than 15 years, the photo was labeled "age-inaccurate." The percentage of images that fell into that category rose each decade, which indicated to Anderson that age bias was increasing over this period.

Anderson conceded that other factors may figure into this phenomenon, including the fact that people tend to be living longer with chronic illnesses. Their descendents may be choosing photos "that portray these individuals in healthier times," he notes.

In addition, the study was almost exclusively of white people (94 percent of those pictured were Caucasian), making it impossible to determine if this trend also applied to those of other races.

Nevertheless, Anderson finds it instructive that these images, which are intended to "distill the essence of a citizen's life," have gradually shifted their focus over the decades.

"Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society at a particular moment in time," he told the Ohio State Research Communications Department. "Our findings suggest that we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the '60s."

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