November 5, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

What Can Obituaries Teach Us?

Lessons from the dead show us what's important

What Can Obituaries Teach Us?
Reading stories of the dead teaches us special lessons about life. It can also ease our fears about death. (Shutterstock)

There is much to learn from life stories, no matter what stage of life you are in. Obituaries are unique in that they often portray the immediate grief of a family in mourning, while telling a factually accurate story about the life of a deceased person. 


The obituary writer has a good deal of control over the way the person is forever remembered. Writing one is itself an act of remembrance, and a statement that those who mourn this person refuse to let them be forgotten. There are many lessons to be found in, and between, the lines of all obituaries. What are some of the most prevalent lessons taught in the obituaries section of the local newspaper? 


To help others


According to Lux Narayan, who analyzed 2000 obituaries published in the New York Times over two years the number one lesson to be learned from life stories is that we should be helping others in our time on earth. 


By analyzing two groups, famous people and non-famous people, he discovered that they often shared the common theme of advancing the sum of human knowledge, and improving the human condition. Giving back to our communities, creating systems that better assist everyone to live good lives and using our talents to learn more about how the world works, are some of the most important things we can do in our lives. 



"If most people lived their lives trying to be famous in death, the world would be a much better place."


— Lux Narayan



To make the most of our time


Obituaries also remind us that life is tenuous. Though we are hardwired to be resilient, human bodies are actually quite fragile, and life can slip away quite quickly. Because no one can know when their end will come, life stories are a reminder to treasure each day.


Even though death can greet any of us at any time, it's not prudent or useful to live life in anticipation of your inevitable death. Despite death being the natural end to life, we can create beauty, help others and enjoy ourselves while we can. Though reading the obituaries can be somewhat morbid, every life story gives you a dash of carpe diem—a reminder to live your life to the fullest. 


To treat other others with kindness


Bettering the human condition in a wide-reaching way may not  be a part of every person's life story, but the daily kindness with which we treat one another can be. Most obituaries of folks that lived ordinary lives are meaningful because they show the care, generosity and positivity that the deceased person embodied. 


This lesson is especially palpable when reading a brutally honest obituary, in which the deceased person is exposed as mean, neglectful or abusive by their surviving family. Though it's rare to see an obituary cast its subject in a negative light, those who don't treat others well run the risk of being remembered and memorialized for their unpleasantness. 


To ease our anxieties about death


It can be  anxiety-inducing to think about your own demise, but reading life stories can ease this fear. Seeing what others accomplished in their lives gives perspective about what you should be focusing on in order to be remembered well by your loved ones. You don't have to win a Nobel Prize to be remembered. Being kind, building positive relationships and having a happy life is what's important. 


Everyone dies. Your death will be no different. But life goes on, and there's peace in knowing that you will be remembered for the good that you did in life. 


Remembering the dead


Creating a written tribute in honor of a deceased loved one is a final gift to them. It will ensure that their life and accomplishments are not forgotten by future generations. A digital obituary can act as a space for others to add to the memorial. Memories, stories, photos and different perspectives on the deceased person's life teach readers of the obituary more about the person being honored, helps with the processing of grief, and teaches lessons about life that can only be learned through loss. 


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