An obituary can give meaning, direction to the living

SINGAPORE - An obituary can change the course of history. This was certainly true in the case of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of the dynamite. When his brother, Ludvig, died in 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary instead of Ludvig's.

Alfred was shocked to find himself described as the "merchant of death" for his invention. His own vision was that dynamite would help bring about the end of war. "When two armies of equal strength can annihilate each other in an instant," he once wrote, "then all civilised nations will retreat and disband their troops."

This unflattering public perspective is widely believed to be the motivation behind Alfred's philanthropy in establishing the Nobel Prizes. How well he succeeded can be judged from his current fame as an idealist rewarding those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind".

Extraordinary obituary

If the Nobel Prize today is the accolade of accolades, an obituary in the right places is also the ultimate compliment. To be featured on the last page of The Economist or The New York Times (NYT) is so coveted that friends and family of the notable dead positively lobby for it. The NYT's obituary team is headed by a Pulitzer Prize winner and has some of the best writers. The team is dedicated to churning out mini lessons in history, humanity or morality that make some of the best-read and discussed pages of the newspaper.

Newpspapers here carry obituaries as paid advertisements. It is also customary for the media to devote coverage to the life and achievements of a prominent person who died recently.

Occasionally, some newspapers, notably the Chinese language papers in Singapore, also delve into the lives of ordinary folks who died, and write stories about them. I believe there is scope for the media here to devote more space to reporting on the worthy achievements of ordinary people in our community who have an extraordinary tale to tell.

Some newspapers elsewhere have an obituary as a weekly fixture. Readers look forward to this as a form of enlightenment, not only about an individual but also of his times and history.

An interest in stories about the dead is not due to a morbid fascination with death. Rather, it stems from an innate desire to find meaning in life. The ideals that inspired others to do great things in the ordinary, everyday context we know, affirm our own values and make our lives feel worthwhile. Meanwhile, the reality of missed chances and mistaken assumptions are material for reflection of our own lives.

But paper is costly and newspaper space especially so. Even if every publicaton in Singapore were to take up this idea, very few of us would merit such a send-off.

Here is where opportunity exists to rethink the traditional paid obituary. We can do more in these columns than to issue a death notice with date of death and names of the loved ones left behind.

Instead, families and friends can turn an obituary into an announcement that includes some biographical details of the person, or even celebration of his life.

I am not proposing that people aggrandise themselves or their loved ones on their demise. Rather, I am suggesting that the obituary can be a channel for the grieving family and friends to pay tribute to someone whom they care about. As the final word of a life lived and gone, it is a chance to evoke the essence of the loved one and bring him or her "back to life". For the living, it is a natural outlet for affection, gratitude and respect. It gives meaning to the loss while remaining as a tangible memento of a cherished legacy.

This is why the Lien Foundation started the "Obitcheery" initiative in The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, linking the common man's memorial to uncommon and treasured tales of their lives. It sought to change the way people view obituaries. Fifty families came forward to participate in the effort. Of these, 18 were selected. These families embraced the way the in-memorials celebrated the lives of their loved ones.

Be nice to death

Scientific studies suggest that thinking of death can help re-prioritise goals and values. That being the case, writing one's own obituary could turn out to be highly positive. American humorist Art Buchwald, recorded his video obituary, saying: "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died".

Reflecting on death sharpens the mind. Like Alfred Nobel, thinking about how we wish to be remembered can be a game changer. Unlike him, we may not be able to splurge to salvage our reputation.

But we can act on the truism that no matter how little - or much - we may have accomplished, how we treat others has a great impact on how we will be remembered. We can immediately take steps to start behaving better in small ways every day so as to be more favourably regarded.

At the end of the day, we may all end up as food for insects or fuel for global warming. But nobody wants to be forgotten. What footprints and memories will you leave behind?

Lee Poh Wah

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is chief executive officer of Lien Foundation.

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