Reflections on the Obituary

My wife and I were talking about the recent story of the obituary of a man who wrote it himself before he died. It went viral on the internet and elicited a very interesting Chicago Tribune piece which included a reminder of the scathing obituary written by children of their mother.

My wife recalled being assigned to write her own obituary as part of her nursing training curriculum. I don’t recall getting an assignment like this in medical school.

I also found a paper written by a family physician on how healing it was to write obituaries for his patients [1]. I wonder how many psychiatrists write obituaries for their patients and whether they’ve done them for those who have died by suicide. That’s not the kind of information you find on PubMed. However, there was a study published on the impact of specifying suicide as the cause of death in obituaries and whether that made any difference in providing support to the bereaved. The conclusion was that those who read obituaries identifying suicide as the cause of death were just as willing to support those left behind compared to those reading obituaries not specifying suicide [2].

The word obituary is derived from the Latin “obit” which means “death.” It’s been used to identify death notices since the 18th century. The form, focus, and content have evolved since the 16th century, ranging from extolling the virtues of famous people to remembrances of the common people. The internet has spawned websites on the subject, including a website called “Obit Magazine,” which could use its own obituary, apparently, because I couldn’t find it.

And I wondered about the therapeutic uses of obituaries. This led to a quick literature search, resulting in my finding a paper about giving adolescents the task of writing their own obituaries. Of course, when I googled “writing obituaries,” I got a flood of “how to write obituaries” hits (including templates) which reminded me of how difficult it was for me to write them for members of my own family many years ago. It’s common for family members to write the obituaries for a relative, and they’re usually published in local newspapers, often referred to as “the obit section.”

I imagine I might have written something different if I’d known that they would not have been published. Nowadays, you can post them on Facebook, which might also influence the style and content. The act of writing them, at least for me, was as healing as it was wrenching. I suppose declining to write an obituary could be just as meaningful as choosing to write one.

I’m still unsure of how I’d approach the task of writing my own obituary, though. I’m sure it would lead to my wondering just how I want others to remember me. This particular act of self-reflection would also foster a confrontation with my own mortality–which is getting only a little easier as I grow older. Somehow I doubt I’d write anything which might go viral on the internet.

How would you go about writing your own obituary?

References:

1. Goldstein, A. (2006). “Goodbyes.” The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 19(4): 416-417.
When my patients die, I am reminded always of all they taught me during our time together. Over the years, I have begun writing clinical obituaries to better celebrate their lives, to inform staff of their passing, and as a means to teach colleagues and students about a healthy way, as physicians, of dealing with patient deaths.

2. Sand, E., K. H. Gordon, et al. (2013). “The impact of specifying suicide as the cause of death in an obituary.” Crisis 34(1): 63-66.
BACKGROUND: Historically, people who die by suicide and those who survive them have been perceived more negatively than those affected by other types of death (e.g., Reynolds & Cimbolic, 1988). Yet, it is unclear whether these negative perceptions actually lead to decreased social and emotional support for people bereaved by suicide. AIMS: To examine whether specifying suicide as the cause of death in an obituary impacts perceptions of a decedent and willingness to provide support to the decedent’s family. METHOD: A group of 253 participants were randomly assigned to read one of three fictional obituaries that were identical except for the stated cause of death (suicide, cancer, or drug overdose). Participants responded to questions about the decedent and behaviors toward the family. RESULTS: Consistent with our prediction, people depicted as dying by suicide were viewed more negatively than decedents depicted as dying due to cancer. Contrary to our prediction, participants endorsed similar levels of willingness to provide support to the bereaved family regardless of the type of death specified in the obituary. CONCLUSIONS: The findings suggest that, even though those who die by suicide are viewed more negatively, their survivors may receive support that is similar to people bereaved by other types of death.

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Comments

  1. Shakespeare’s approach has always appealed to me. Sonnet 72:

    O! lest the world should task you to recite
    What merit lived in me, that you should love
    After my death,–dear love, forget me quite,
    For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
    Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
    To do more for me than mine own desert,
    And hang more praise upon deceased I
    Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
    O! lest your true love may seem false in this
    That you for love speak well of me untrue,
    My name be buried where my body is,
    And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
    For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
    And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

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