Hey, thought about dying recently? It’s run through my mind on more than a few occasions; once when I was photographing a wildfire in Woodland, another time when contemplating the near future following a cancer scare, and lastly, waking up one night to find my wife glaring down at me as our young child wailed in the background.
All those times I thought, “I could die here.”
What follows death is often the obituary; the distilled facts and timeline of a person’s life. It has been the staple of newspapers for generations and one of the most well-read sections for weekly and daily readers. The newspaper industry has undergone changes in the past two decades as the Internet has provided challenges to its time-honored content model. While the future looks to be more digital and less “newsprint and ink,” the need for its content — including obituaries — will remain a constant, not just with older-than-50 “traditional” readers, but with the millennial and younger people to follow.
So, is the obituary still relevant? If so, does it need to change? And do younger and older generations view these differently? I recently asked these questions in a social media post, and the general consensus of respondents — varying in the Millennial to Boomer range — said they remain relevant, with several people stating interest in writing their own.
“I’ve written two; one is humorous,” said Joan Kopczynski. “Don’t know which will get published after I die.”
“When I worked at the Free Press, an obituary came in that was written by the deceased. It was hilarious!” said Jolene Rupp. “So, I have been thinking of writing my own.” In agreement, Norma Staff responded, “Thinking of drafting mine, but thinking I have 30 years to go to get into some good trouble. Can always do updates.”
Michelle Nutt thought on writing her own, “…but because every day in my life is a special adventure, I would end up having to rewrite it. And I don’t want to spend the little time I have left on the planet focused on my death. I think, and hope, that when I pass, that whoever has the pen to put to paper on my life for a final goodbye, that it will be words of how I will be remembered with love.”
But why are obituaries relevant, and what makes them so?
As much as for the essential facts of a person’s life, the obit, according to Hannah Rauzi, “…allows family, friends and the larger community to reflect on the person and what they meant to the people around them. It also can help people pause and reflect on their own lives and mortality. ‘What impact will I leave when I am gone?’”
Free Press reporter Lorie Palmer wrote her parents’ obituaries with them several years prior to their deaths, “…and it was a blessing to have that taken care of. It also allowed me to get the facts correct and other family members to read them beforehand. I think it’s such an important piece of history, and, if it were up to me, I would always make sure cause of death is included. Future generations want to know.”
Palmer’s insight into the information value of obituaries was expanded upon by Phil Lueck.
“I miss news obituaries (as opposed to the paid ones most newspapers run now),” Lueck said. “They were pro forma (some of them), but they were an indication that you existed and you mattered, no matter who you were. And they were blessedly free of mawkishness and heavy on information about the deceased, which you certainly don’t see in paid obits. I wrote my brother’s obituary, and did it very much like a regular news one and was quite happy with myself for it.”
Kathy Ackerman noted her mother wrote both her own and her husband’s obituaries. For her mother’s obituary, “…she included the name of her childhood cat, ‘Baby Face’ and added that she had a fondness for cats ever after. I never would have come up with that.” Her father’s obituary was written 11 years before his death, and it provided insight into his past contributions to the community: “…they found his obituary interesting because they never knew he was a carpenter by trade and that he had a part in so many Grangeville landmarks.”
“The details of one’s life are important,” Ackerman said, “but I feel like the further removed we have become from meaningful relationships, the more people appreciate a little deeper insight into what made a person tick.”