What are obituaries for?
The easy answer is that an obituary is to announce that someone has passed away. But if that’s all it’s for, we would simply see one- or two-sentence announcements. That’s it. But that’s not all there is to an obituary.
In fact, obituaries often tell us a lot. And when we start to look a little closer at what makes an obituary, there’s a lot more we can learn.
Over a 20-month period, Narayan analyzed the words and stories told in those 2,000 obituaries. His goal was to find what an obituary can tell us about achievement and what it means to have lived a good life.
“If you remove the beginning and the end, you’re left with a beautifully-worded descriptor that tries to, in just a few words, capture an achievement or a lifetime,” Narayan told the audience.
But he also did more than just read the obituaries. He began to analyze each obituary through a language processing program to find any patterns throughout all 2,000 obituaries. Some of the interesting things he found were:
- Some of the most significant words revolved around things like film, theater, music, dance, and art.
- On average, a person’s first big professional achievement came at around age 37.
- After separating the obituaries into two categories, famous and not famous, Narayan and his team then analyzed the words of the first paragraph to find common themes. And what was one of the most frequently found words in all of those obituaries? The word helped.
There are a lot of lessons we can learn from obituaries, but perhaps the most important is that a life well-lived is one that helped change others for the better.
Narayan told the audience that these people “made a positive dent in the fabric of life. They helped.”
Watch the full video below.
The Book of the Dead
Lux Narayan wasn’t the only one looking through a lot of obituaries. The New York Times’ obituary editor, William McDonald, compiled a book of obituaries from the newspaper’s archive. The book, The New York Times Book of the Dead, not only has 300 obituaries of famous people — but also gives access to 10,000 others.
The book includes famous obituaries of people like Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jackie Robinson. Dating as far back as the 1860s, it’s a glimpse into the past, acting as a map of our changing values, language, and culture over time.
William McDonald wrote in the introduction that “Obituaries by definition evoke the past, and when written decades or centuries ago, they echo those lost worlds…” To learn more about McDonald’s book, check out his interview here.
Different Tales They Tell
An obituary does many things. They can inspire us and even make us laugh. The can be endearing. Heartbreaking. They can start conversations about difficult topics or help us see how people lived in the past. But most importantly, an obituary is there to tell us the unique story of a unique person and how they lived.
It’s time for a more modern obituary. See how our Tribute Walls can provide a permanent place for families to share stories, memories, and more. Give us a call at 866-372-9372 or fill out the form below to learn more!