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July 4, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Brutally Honest Obituaries

Using life story telling to make a statement

Brutally Honest Obituaries
Writing a negative obituary is not a choice that should be taken lightly. Are you making a statement, or just lashing out at the dead? (Shutterstock)

Recently an obituary went viral, but not for its touching representation of a life well lived. In fact, it was quite the opposite—and people are talking about the ethics of publishing obituaries that portray deceased people in unflattering light. 

The adult children of Kathleen Dehmlow published a blistering death notice for their 80-year-old mother, who died in May. It details the story of a woman who abandoned her children, leaving them with her own parents.

"In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California.”

This obituary's popularity stems from its brutal honesty, and unabashed dredging up of family drama. But it's not the first obituary to lay bare a sordid tale. In fact, brutally honest obituaries, while rare, go viral every year or two. 

21st century obituaries reframe older conventions

For decades, obituaries have stuck to the basic facts: Details like name, age, place of residence, place of passing, career milestones, spouse, children, predecessors and survivors make up the bulk of a typical obituary. This approach is strongly tied the obituary's roots in the newspaper industry. Newspaper obituaries are traditionally short and informative due to space constraints, and the cost of printing extra lines. Following this simple writing format, it's not easy to discern the deceased person's authentic character through the final written record of their life. 

For a grieving family, an obituary that is indistinguishable from any other in the newspaper is disappointing. It may outline their life concisely and accurately, but does nothing to show readers the uniqueness of the person who has passed. A generic obituary can reinforce fears that our dead will be forgotten.

That's why many modern obituaries go into greater detail about the deceased person's character, interests and personality quirks. These touching obituaries show us the real story of a life through the powerful tragedy of death. The brutally honest obituary is nothing more than a negative twist on modern life storytelling. 

What makes a brutally honest obituary go viral?

These stories go viral because they are rare, and somewhat taboo. Negative obituaries are uncommon because most people, even those who have made many mistakes in life, have redeeming qualities. When a family has negative stories to tell about a deceased person, they usually omit those tales and focus purely on factual biographical details. Even if the deceased person was awful to everyone around them, obituary writing has always included some level of discretion—and sometimes the willful turning of a blind eye.

When the relationship was so strained that the closest survivors decide to commemorate it, it creates a stir on social media. Perhaps because our society has had the old adage "don't speak ill of the dead" ingrained within us, we are inclined to remember those who have passed as angels above reproach—even when that was not the case. 

The act of posting an obituary is a statement in itself: Someone is using their time and money to tell a life story. The act of writing a negative obituary shows that even if the deceased person isn't missed, they're remembered. 

The elements of a negative viral obituary

A brutally honest obituary is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Here are some of the elements that have made brutally honest obituaries go viral:

  • The deceased person left a negative impression upon their survivors. 

    • Most people designate one or more of their children as caretakers of their estate. The designated estate executor may be an estranged adult child of the deceased. 

  • The family is willing to air their grievances publicly.

    • Obituaries are typically published by the deceased person's next of kin, closest family member or friend, or estate representative. This is particularly important in the context of negative obituaries, as the only way to win over readers is for the writer to have authority over the story. 

  • The story is factually accurate.

    • Obituaries, like anything printed in the news, must be factual. Opinions must be presented along with supporting facts. Like a traditional obituary tribute, it must describe the life of the deceased person, including all relevant biographical milestones, positive or negative.

  • The writing style closely follows the conventions of the traditional obituary.

    • Because a brutally honest obituary departs so much from a traditional obituary, it is important that any families wishing to call out their dead relatives have all the facts right, and the authority to share the story. Using a standard obituary template will help elevate the story beyond the status of an internet rant.

  • The author has a higher purpose.

    • The obituary writer should have a higher purpose than personally attacking a dead person's reputation. There are lessons to learn in death, and sometimes they aren't pretty. When someone lived a miserable life, their story can inspire others to live with greater kindness.

Should I write a mean obituary about my loved one?

Sometimes circumstances surrounding a death escalates family conflicts, and complex grief emotions intensifies feelings of rage. Don't let your rage get the best of you, only to regret writing a vindictive obituary in a few years. 

Ask yourself:

  • Am I writing this as revenge?

  • Will I hurt living people by publishing this story?

  • Is this story more of a rant than an obituary?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, the story might be best saved for visits with your support network as you grieve the loss. 

An obituary is the final written record of a person's life. And if a person left a trail of destruction and pain, there may be no other way to write their life story. But if you plan on attempting a brutally honest obituary, beware: Your choices define your character. Carefully reflect on this before making a decision. 

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