Obituaries and Collective Memory: In Remembrance of Judith Robinson

The obituary, macabre in manner yet beautiful in intent, is a long-standing, ever-evolving Western tradition which reflects cultural notions of legacy, memory, and the notion of the 'good death.' Dating back to as far as 59BC (1), obituaries hold a unique place in Western communication as their perceived sole purpose is to convey the death of a person, serving as a quick-and-easy, yet respectful, way to honour the dead. However, within the small, usually paragraph-length memorials of the modern-day obituary, can you find stories, critiques, and lessons. Dependent upon on the author, the publisher, and the remembered, obituaries can tell us, the readers, not just about the individual in question, but also their relationship to the community and even the cultural and political climate of their society at the time (2)(3)(4).


Judith Robinson (April 6, 1897–December 17, 1961) was an outspoken journalist in her time. Known for her kind attitude, brazen socio-political opinions, and bold actions, Robinson ushered in new methods and ways of thinking in Canadian journalism. Her critics, mostly contemporary journalists and politicians, were divided by her methods and actions. Writing both about how impressed and disgusted they have been with her. Yet, Judith Robinson’s obituaries tell a slightly different story.


As was the tradition of obituaries in twentieth-century America, the language used to convey the life of Judith Robinson posthumously does not reflect the same extreme language used before her death (5)(6). During Robinson’s career, it was not uncommon to see scathing negative reactions to many of her critiques, especially regarding her stances on Canadian politics, much like the ones featured in the Letters to the Editor and the Free For All comments. Though none of this is reflected within posthumous writings, rather Robinson’s obituaries primarily use subtle, neutral language. As well, there is a markedly gendered difference between how people spoke about and to Robinson compared to how obituaries (7) portrayed her.


Wherein letters to the editor addressed to Robinson were often crass, almost vulgar, antagonizing her audacious voice, her obituaries chose to highlight her demure and dainty personality. While this depiction of Robinson is not antithetical to her portrayal in media, it calls to question the notion of obituaries as a tool of collective memory and why an author would choose to augment the narratives of a person's life post-mortem (8). This exhibition serves to both highlight the life of Judith Robinson as a great Canadian, as well as an exploration into the nature of obituaries in mid-century Canada.