Mary E Black: Five reasons to write an obituary

Regrets in life are a drag, they pull you back into what might have been, and a sort of destructive nostalgia. Obituaries on the other hand are a reflection and a summing up—they are life’s punctuation marks. I deeply regret not writing the obituary of my father, Dr John Alexander Black. His funeral eulogy was spoken and moving, but never formalized and so has evaporated into memory and there it sits, vaguely unfinished business. Writing the obituary of my Mother, Dr Margaret (Rita) Black nee Fitzgerald has therefore been an exercise in doing things differently. These are five reasons why it has been worthwhile for me, and may be worthwhile for you.

  1. It will require you to talk to others, some of whom you may not have seen in quite a while. For a short while a surprising number of people will be talking about this person, remembering things, including about you in her life. Connections can be brought back to life, distant cousins rediscovered (and found to be interesting and thoughtful, and anecdotes revitalised.
  2. You will have to check facts and test what you know about the deceased. I have found errors in my understanding of key dates in my mother’s life, the names of her relatives, and have rediscovered her motivations and actions. I found I was incorrect in several of my firmly held assumptions.
  3. An obituary is a celebration and a marking of someone’s time on earth. The dates of arrival and departure, the names and ages of partners and offspring, stories from a life, the chance even to exact some revenge, or to promote a particular legacy or act. It is what the dead person would have wished, even if it is a low key and humble effort. It is a way of honouring their memory, their wishes, their style, and their beliefs. It can also be inspiring to others. Particularly if the obituary is thoughtful, honest and wise.
  4. The act of writing is therapeutic in itself, and it heals. There used to be clear responsibilities for such things—the eldest child often, or the protégée of a famous person. Now the rules are more fluid and it is open to whoever wishes to pick up pen and put words to paper. And of course to handle the complicated politics and emotional sensitivities that may arise. Writing an obituary can be many things: a profoundly personal and sensitive act, a baroque dance around political and family sensibilities, or a searing act of defiance and rebellion.
  5. You, the writer or the reader who may have known the deceased, can move on. An obituary is one of the many rituals around death (laying out of the body, pennies on the eyes, sitting shiva, funeral announcements, the funeral rites, the burial or cremation ceremony, floral tributes, the wake, periodic visits to the grave, etc.) and death rituals have existed in all societies for a reason, Humans profoundly need to mourn. The obituary (and the eulogy) is one such ritual and it remains important not just for those who are “important.” I like the Guardian’s Other Lives section which allows the fascinating stories of ordinary people to be revealed in tiny memorial snippets.

Mary E Black is a public health doctor. She is on Twitter @DrMaryBlack

Competing interests: I have no relevant interests to declare.