“Hard-working, great friend, short-tempered and unforgiving” might be a fair posthumous assessment of me. But that isn’t what will get written. If I’m lucky, I’ll get some ‘from’ and ‘to’ dates. If I’m unlucky, I’ll get the hollow obituary adjectives about how ‘loving’ and ‘devoted’ I was.
Something very different happened to Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick. When she died this year, her son wrote an obituary on behalf of “her surviving children [who] will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure”. Once the obituary started to go viral, the paper in which it had appeared, the Reno Gazette-Journal, apparently deleted it from its website. That decision perhaps reflects the fact that when it comes to final conclusions about other people’s lives, we’re painfully uncomfortable with the truth.
The art of the obituary is the art of the euphemism. Eulogies need careful translation: the ‘eccentric’ are really the social outcasts and if you read that someone ‘enjoyed a tipple’, it’s safe to assume you’re reading about the life and times of an alcoholic.
All but the unquestionably evil get the soft treatment. That sends the wrong message to society about the consequences of our actions — that ultimately, in death, you’ll be well remembered no matter what you do. An honest representation of complexity is something to be respected in our professional and private lives. So it seems even more perverse that our final assessment is so consistently distorted.
Maybe we’re keen to praise the dead out of guilt about our unrelenting criticism of the living. Or the sharp finality of death makes us want to read something equally clear-cut. Or glossing over the truth about others could be about fear of what our own life reports will look like.
It seems that the religious, the atheistic and the agnostic among us are all equally keen to avoid making the final judgment of a life — whoever’s responsibility we believe that is, we don’t particularly want it. That strikes me as being hypocritically holier-than-thou when we regularly make judgments about living people who have no ability to reply.
I reckon things might change though. Social media has its trolls and bullies, but there’s also plenty of debate about the veracity and fairness of statements. If you’re going to describe someone as the nation’s ‘sweetheart’ or ‘hero’, prepare to be challenged by members of said nation.
And online obituaries won’t just be verbose appraisals of the successful and the famous. The future will probably herald snappy summaries of the hashtagged dead. I hope that such an honest, sincere assessment will follow me to the grave.