The writing of an obituary raises many questions about describing life
and death. These are listed as questions, with some of my thoughts.
Most importantly, these issues are a reminder that many issues could be
better resolved if the person
wrote their own obituary, or were interviewed before death to help in creating a life story.
Here are some delicate questions:
Never say die?
The first question: How do you define death? Does
one matter-of-factly "die"? Gently "pass away?" Or poetically
"shuffle off this mortal coil"? Interestingly, this question is not a
new one. The root of the word "obituary" is the Latin word
"obitus" meaning "departure" or "encounter." In other words,
even the Romans were searching for a euphemism for "death." (Read more in the Online Etymology Dictionary.)
Whatever you prefer, the choice is yours. (The website "Dead
and Buried" listed more than 200 such phrases, but it is no longer operating.)
Cause of death?
Should it be spelled out, or merely hinted at in the
request for memorial donations?
Again, should this be spelled out, hinted at, or avoided
altogether? Being married to a mental health professional, I am aware
that suicide is much more common than most people think. I have come to
believe that if more people were more aware of its fairly commonplace
reality - and the
resources available - they might seek out help beforehand. How many
would have regretted taking the step of what is often a permanent
solution to a temporary problem? However, how
much obligation does the family of someone who has committed suicide
have to help prevent others from doing so?
and who’s out?
Who among the relatives and
in-laws should be included? Sticky questions can emerge when family
members are estranged, or when there has been divorce and re-marriage.
Better to contemplate these questions as early as possible. Here is a
thought: readers of obituaries will notice some omissions and wonder
why, perhaps it is better to acknowledge the situation quickly and then
What do the family or friends say? What would the
deceased person want to have said? Does a discrete listing of a "life
partner" or "companion" work, or is a more direct description
Sometimes, two entirely different obituaries of one person have
been submitted by
different factions of the family.
(See the article Sally Ride comes out in obituary from the Washington Blade, a gay community newspaper.)
* * *
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