Why you should care
Because death is unavoidably a participatory sport.
Mila Turner is writing an obituary. Her own. After helping put one together for her stepfather as his Alzheimer’s disease worsened, she realized just how important it was to be able to contribute to one’s final testament while still alive and able to do so. “I don’t want anyone to ever have to guess who I was or what I accomplished,” Turner says. “I work too hard in this life to be misunderstood after death.”
As a genealogist and family historian, Turner probably has a finer sense of the value of remembrance and good recordkeeping than most, including what can make standard obituaries these days “quite boring.” But Turner is also in good health, and … she is only 27 years old.
With each passing day, it is becoming an even better time to die. At least if you’re concerned about being remembered in all of your idiosyncratic, mango-eating, dickey-wearing glory. With each selfie your phone collects, each recipe you share on Facebook, each thought you expel into cyberspace, you are amassing not only a larger digital footprint, but also a fuller testimony of what it means to be you. What will be made of this voluminous material, including who might tell your story when you go. Well, that’s a rather good story itself — and one with just as uncertain a future.
Is it time then to start thinking about writing the obit for the obituary itself?
For years, we’ve relied on the obituary to be death’s official spokesperson, to give some closure and meaning to our famous, infamous or wonderfully ordinary lives. But many of those on the “dead beat” — the professional obit writers who traffic daily in death so as to help us better appreciate life — are increasingly shuffling off their mortal toil, as layoffs, downsizing and other changes continue to engulf the world of print media. Meantime, popular memorial websites such as Legacy.com, which now claims over 24 million monthly unique visitors and a database of over 20 million obituaries, continue to expand in size and — along with the Facebook pages of the departed — are quickly becoming the go-to sites for digital condolences and remembrances. Another new player in the field, the self-penned obituaries or “selfie obits” such as Turner’s, continue to multiply.
Is it time then to start thinking about writing the obit for the obituary itself? The First Rule of the Obit, after all, is “Be prepared.” Most significant obits are drafted well in advance of their subject’s actual demise, so why not start assembling the obituary’s file if it is indeed at risk of expiring? To do so, though, it helps to know a little something about its next of kin. And when you make the relevant inquiries, you run square into an online population that is buzzing with new approaches to death, not to mention into the Second Rule of the Obit: Never pronounce someone dead before their time.
The Obituary, a Pioneer Who Built a Worldwide Following
The origins of the modern obituary, a friend to millions and a pioneer in remembering the dead, remain somewhat murky. Most who know it well trace its birth to The Gentleman’s Magazine in London in the 1730s, when, heavily influenced by popular volumes of short biographies, the precocious death notice first discovered its fondness for print.
Over the next century and a half, under the stern tutelage of The Times of London, it would expand its repertoire from glorified lists to formulaic recitations. The Times would polish its rough edges, making it fit for society and introducing it to all manner of “eminent persons” from charming but sickly lords to eccentric widows. It became a champion of England’s minor aristocracy, tethering its fate to theirs. By the late 19th century, the now mature genre’s meticulous works were well on their way to becoming “the first drafts of history.”
But the British native grew restless, and soon struck out for other shores, expanding its influence wherever it went, leaving countless meaningful deaths in its wake. In the United States, the obituary’s burgeoning affair with the “common man” left it re-invigorated, increasingly infatuated with life, a loyal advocate for the colorful nation’s deep piety, its obsession with accomplishments, its penchant for graphic medical detail.
Later in life, at the end of the 20th century, the obituary returned to its first love — the London broadsheet, and there it flowered as never before, becoming an inspiration to millions. Sure it was occasionally, but forgivably, late and a tad obsequious or irreverent at times, but it turned up to work every day in its signature outfit, at its designated section, without fail.
Mostly, though, the obituary loved to tell stories, almost invariably true, but occasionally, and shockingly, false, as when it mistakenly described Fidel Castro as not just dead but as a “lifeguard, athlete and movie star.” An avid adventurer, it roamed the world with politicians, film stars and despots. In Uganda, it marveled at Idi Amin’s collection of frozen heads; in Britain, it spent the day at a cricket match with Denis Thatcher while the future prime minister Margaret gave birth to the couple’s twins. Its best tales were, as Marilyn Johnson, a longtime admirer and author of The Dead Beat, recalls, “as intoxicating as a lung full of snowy air, as clarifying as the glass the ophthalmologist drops before your eyes, that brings the world into sudden sharp focus.”
As the 21st century dawned, however, the obituary would experience recurrent, and often sudden, pains. Parts of its anatomy that it had never questioned before just stopped working, as did many of its editors. Increasingly, it turned to the shadowy corridors of the Internet for solace (and paying customers), longing for that next embrace with death that could bring it to life again.
From the Dead Beat to the Dying Beat?
For a long time, the obituary desk was referred to as “the Siberia of the newsroom” — the place where young greenhorns were assigned to cut their teeth or veteran journalists were put out to pasture. In recent decades, the obit section has made great strides, and the ranks of the “dead beat” are now filled with many top-notch journalists, from Adam Bernstein at the Washington Post to Margalit Fox at The New York Times, who use the medium to instruct, entertain and inform their legions of loyal readers.
It is a challenging news domain, one that requires careful coordination and advanced planning: The New York Times, for example, says that it has nearly 1,700 pre-written obits, or “advances” on file, ready should the grim reaper strike. And when the unexpected occurs — as with the recent death of Robin Williams — the need to provide a compelling offering to an eager online audience means that, as Bernstein tells OZY, “it’s a race to the death, so to speak.” (Most obit writers also possess an unfailingly good sense of humor: Bernstein’s predecessor at the Post, the late Richard Pearson, liked to joke, “God is my assignment editor.”)
But, as author Kate Sweeney explains in American Afterlife, the world of obituaries, like the broader universe of print media, is shifting, and shrinking. Obituary editorial boards have been heavily hit by layoffs, buyouts and early retirements in the face of print media’s ongoing decline. Even among the regional, mid-sized newspapers that still exist, obituaries covering the lives of ordinary citizens are increasingly disappearing, often replaced by paid family-written notices that help bring in revenue. For many papers, though, obits are not a viable money-maker, and, if they are retained, they are once again being assigned to the newsroom’s neophytes.
Many news organizations have also started to explore new digital opportunities — over 1,500 newspapers worldwide now partner with Legacy.com, where a growing digital community offers their condolences and remembrances in the guest books provided for the obituaries housed on site. As Janice Hume, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who has studied online obituary sites at length, tells OZY, “Readers use these obituary sites to talk to the dead.” Not literally, of course. But they share personal stories and even ask the deceased to take messages to their dearly departed. “This is rich and fascinating content,” says Hume, “and quite different from the obituary of old.”
The Death of Me: The Rise of the ‘Selfie Obit’
Indeed, the dead are even starting to talk back. The dead beat may be losing some of its more seasoned writers, but it is gaining scores of new participants, ones who know their subjects better than anyone. In fact, the aging Baby Boomer generation, along with the growing number of social media participants, is producing a critical mass of people interested in actively managing their narrative through life, and increasingly in death as well. In particular, self-penned obituaries — also known as “selfie obits” or “autobituaries” — are becoming more common on obituary pages and online memorial sites. There’s been a marked uptick in self-penned obits in recent years, Legacy.com tells OZY, though the overall number remains a tiny fraction of published ones.
The trend toward digital self-memorialization is only going to grow.
Self-penned obits and death messages are also becoming multimedia phenomena. Turner plans for her obit to be self-published and include a collection of photos spanning her life and interests. Ifidie, a Facebook application launched a few years ago that allows users to create a video message for friends and family that will be shared “If I die,” claims to have over 200,000 users. The company’s director of marketing, Erez Rubinstein, says that underlying the app’s creation was “the understanding that more and more of our life is becoming both digital and social, and it is just natural that we leave a digital legacy after we are gone.”
The trend toward digital self-memorialization is only going to grow, says Susan Soper, a former Atlanta newspaper editor whose site, ObitKit.com, helps people craft their own obituaries. She also tells OZY that “final resumes” will continue to be more personal, more customized. And, as with Turner, who is helping compose obituaries for other close relatives, the process is growing more communal as well. Soper says that the obituary writers she works with often collaborate with family members and friends to assemble their profile, which ultimately “is a gift to grown children and other family members — peace of mind for them that they are carrying out their loved ones’ wishes.”
To be sure, the selfie obit is not exactly new. Back in 1990, for example, the British comedian Spike Milligan had his own humorous final accounting published well before his own death (in 2002). Another humorist, American Art Buchwald, posted a video tribute in 2007 before his death as part of “The Last Word” series by The New York Times, opening with “I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.” More recently, character actor and Homeland cast member James Rebhorn, who died last March of skin cancer, penned his own obituary for his church’s website, which soon went viral.
But it’s not just the comedians and celebrities who are having fun with the autobituary. Walter George Bruhl Jr., 80, a Marine Corps veteran, delighted readers of Delaware’s Cape Gazette (and soon readers across the web) by sending himself off in the manner of Monty Python’s dead parrot. Aaron Joseph Purmort, 35, of Minneapolis, who died of cancer last November, playfully revealed in his self-obit that “the kind and mild-mannered Art Director” was in fact Spider-Man. On a more serious note, Elizabeth Sue Sleasman of Seattle, who recently died at age 37, used her self-penned obituary to warn young people about the perils of drug and alcohol abuse. The list goes on, and the more new authors the obituary gathers, the more the genre seems to expand and change.
The Last Word: Your Life as a Listicle
In the same way that supporters of traditional newspapers and paid journalism have pointed to quality, consistency and accuracy as the bulwarks against a flood of substandard digital news content, many see the obituary as remaining a well-fortified genre for years to come. “I think the best obits now and forever will be the ones that touch the reader through revealing, riveting details,” says Bernstein. “No new trend will change that.”
But, as with online media today, that doesn’t mean there won’t be an ocean of obit amateurism to contend with as the field opens up. “The bad news in all of this,” says Hume of the explosion of online memorials, “is that the new openness means that much of the content is not vetted for accuracy, nor is it edited to ensure that it is clear and meaningful to others who might read or see it.”
The good news, however, is that as more self-obits go viral, we are going to continue to see a swelling of creativity and innovation in the obituary space. After all, when it comes to your self-presentation in the digital age, if there’s a fate worse than being dead, it’s being boring. “I want mine to be as interesting as I am,” says Turner, and she is not alone. How long before the new digital obit pages employ some of the new conventions of digital journalism — catchy listicles, compelling photos, snazzier headlines? How long before you start reading obits entitled “17 Things I Learned to Avoid in Having a Long and Fruitful Life” or “Before You Say Life is Meaningless, Listen to What Happened to Me”?
The rumors of the obituary’s death may have been greatly exaggerated, but it’s headed for a life-changing experience.