The Death of the Obituary

Ding, dong, the obituary is dead. Well not actually, but it has died in its popularity, frequency of readers, and overall quality of writing. There was once a time when the obituary section of the newspaper had many readers. And those readers would sympathize with the family going through the loss, remember the achievements of the person who passed and regret not knowing them. But what’s the point of having fans after death? And even more so, why do we care about people only once they are dead?

A week ago, I was notified that a family friend’s mother had passed away and was sent the obituary written in her honor. I had never read an obituary, and didn’t know what to expect. After reading hers, I became curious about obituaries as a form of genre and wondered which publications also published obituaries. I discovered that the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other big name publications could be commissioned to write them. While I was reading some obituaries by The New York Times, two things made me uncomfortable. First, I was unsatisfied with the lack of information on the personality and character of the deceased — all that was covered was their jobs and achievements. Second, the there was a lack of diversity in who the obituaries were written about, and more particularly, they seemed to only be written about the lives of old white men.

One obituary I read was romanticizing the life of Jimmy Johnson, the “studio staple of southern soul.” I found that Jimmy’s success and talent as a backup instrumental musician was fueled and exaggerated with name drops of famous artists like Aretha Franklin and the Funk Brothers of Motown Records. The obituary did a wonderful job with describing Johnson’s journey to start his own inclusive recording studio in Alabama, along with how his studio produced soul music that other southern studios refused to publish.

But once I finished the reading, I felt discomfort and dissatisfaction. The obituary honored and remember Johnson well, but I didn’t know anything about Johnson as a human being. I knew him in black and white. At that point, Johnson’s obituary was like a Wikipedia page — although some Wikipedia pages are actually quite informative. I had read Johnson’s resume, a listing of his achievements and family, but I wanted to know if Johnson was loved by his colleagues for his puns or if he was good with his grandchildren. The lack of the rich, emotional information that really makes us understand a person wasn’t included in any of the obituaries I read. And why was that? After all, it’s always those movies that make us cry and remind us of our humanity that we believe are the best. Maybe it’s because of our social protocol to talk sensitively about the deceased, in caution that we will either regret not knowing them better. Or perhaps it’s out of our fear of death. I, for one, am terrified of dying. So by further diving into the life and character of a dead person, who will never again be able to share his or her presence with the world, only forces me to acknowledge the consequences of death.

Now to provide a quick lesson on obituary basics, there seems to be a structural template universally used by all the publications. The template is roughly like this:

  1. Name, place of birth, age, and place of death
  2. Cause of Death
  3. Family lineage
  4. Life achievements (college, job, job #2, retirement)
  5. (Optional) Funeral information

Understandably so, this template for obituaries honors the person who died in a way that makes it appear as though they had lived a full and successful life. Also, the whoever writes the obituary has to please the family of the deceased — because they are the ones who paid for it.

The second reason obituaries make me uncomfortable is the blatant absence of obituaries for young, multi-ethnic or female people. Furthermore, I had expected to see at least one obituary about a victim of Hurricane Dorian, but there were none, at least in national publications. This lack of representation, even in death, is alarming. While I understand obituaries cost money — to have one written in the NY Times is $50 per line — and due to socioeconomic status, an obituary may not be affordable or important, you’d think publications would write some pro bono obituaries to honor the victims of natural disasters and gun violence.

In a change of events, my stance about obituaries has been turned around. In the process of writing this blog post, I searched around and read obituaries from local and national publications. In doing so, I found some obituaries that were written quite well. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, really seems to honor the person who had passed, focusing on the impact he or she had on others in life and in death. The obituary for Valerie Harper, for instance, focused on Harper’s “all too human” attitude and friendliness. I enjoyed reading that portion of the obituary because it allowed me to connect to Harper and respect her. In addition, the obituary focused — more than once — on Harper’s 10 year battle with cancer. As somber as it is, acknowledging Harper’s journey with a terminal cancer reminded me of the strength and perseverance displayed when battling for life. The presence of the themes of hope and strength in an obituary was a complete turn around from the elevator pitch obituaries I first read.

In conclusion, if all obituaries cast the same respect and realness as the ones in the Los Angeles Times, the genre could move people to tears. They may not be your regular Nicholas Sparks novel, but these honest biographies of real people hit a different place in your heart. And once these obituaries become more inclusive in representing a diverse array of the deceased, they may become eligible for a Pulitzer Prize.

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