Life before death: Obituaries should be for the living

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Obituaries are important for paying tribute to the deceased and allowing people to recount the person’s life. But shouldn’t we be celebrating people whilst they’re alive?

The history of obituaries

Throughout its history, the obituary has played many different roles, coming in several shapes and sizes. An obituary can be a short, straight-to-the-point death announcement, or it can be an epic account of a person’s life, detailing every remarkable thing a person achieved. 

After the physical body has gone, obituaries are written, creating a body out of the person through words; a body which is not theirs. Consequently, the dead become a mere image- a symbol of who the person used to be. They are no longer remembered for who they were, but rather what they represented while they lived, reduced to their most memorable moments. 

For centuries we have been writing about the best of people and paying tribute to them, and this year has been no different.

A year of heartache

Sadly, this year has been one of immeasurable loss. Covid-19 has plagued the lives of people across the globe and countless families and friends have lost loved ones to the virus. 

Even without the pandemic this year, we have lost many famous faces. 2020 began with the tragic death of retired basketball player Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, six passengers and a pilot. This was shortly followed by the death of Caroline Flack in February as well as numerous other celebrity deaths such as Naya Rivera and Chadwick Boseman. 

In the months leading up to this tragic loss, Flack was vilified online by hundreds and thousands of people who thought they could get away with passing cruel comments, not understanding the pain they were inflicting from their keyboards.

Boseman battled with cancer for four years and managed to keep his deteriorating condition concealed from prying eyes. Mirroring the vilification Flack was victim to, he was inundated with mean comments regarding his dramatic weight loss earlier this year. An article published by The Independent in April detailed how “Chadwick Boseman has alarmed his fans after posting a video on Instagram that seemingly showed off his dramatic weight loss.” While many comments were of concern, the multitude of nasty comments resulted in Chadwick deleting this video. If the public had known what was really happening behind closed doors, would they have been so quick to jump to conclusions and post mean comments?

After the loss of all these individuals, all of the cruel words shared were seemingly forgotten (or intentionally ignored) by those who had shared them. There was an outpouring of love for both Flack and Boseman, with pictures, quotes and heartfelt paragraphs shared across social media platforms. 

The passing of well-loved famous faces amid a global pandemic shook the world and many people took to sharing tributes on social media for their beloved idols. Many tributes were touching and beautifully written, detailing the achievements of the person’s life and how much they meant to the person writing the tribute. 

And now, more than ever, we should stop saving our best words for death and, especially in the year of Covid-19, nothing should be left unsaid.

Mourning in the age of coronavirus

Mourning for lost loved ones in a pandemic is complicated. The pandemic has made us reassess the way we mourn and look at death. Words can sometimes be a heavy burden on our tongue, so gathering them to honour the lives of those we have lost is an essential part of the grieving process. 

The pandemic has shaken the way we mourn with many people now mourning alone, so it is important people can mourn in the way they best see fit. Whether that be through a virtual commemoration service, a private laying of flowers, or something else. 

Many tributes shared online this year have stated that they wished they could have told the recently passed person this information sooner. Saving our best words for when they are too late will not bring our loved ones back. ‘Living Obituaries’ would enable us to get everything out in the open and prevent words and actions being said and done too late. Unlike obituaries, which are written to reminisce, Living Obituaries are for the here and now; the living and the loving.

Words beyond measure

Although our mourning rituals and coping mechanisms may have been scuppered by coronavirus, and pushing against the wave of grief is difficult, our connection to loved ones remains, and always will be, imperative. There is no timeframe for grief but there is time to appreciate those we love.

We shouldn’t wait until death to appreciate people. We should show people how much we love them every opportunity we get. As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said: “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid”.

Illustration courtesy of Amber Conway.