“I was on death watch.”
This is how my husband described his former job when I met him eight years ago. Then an editor of London’s Daily Mirror newspaper, Jack was tasked with keeping the Queen Mother’s obituary up to date. She hadn’t yet died — this was the early ’90s — but hers was one of many in-progress obits the paper kept on file. Every time the royal did something significant (or significant-ish), a writer handed over new copy and a photographer turned in new photos for Jack to add; by the time his four-year tenure at the Mirror ended, still six years shy of the Queen Mother’s passing, the tribute had reached 48 pages.
“Pretty cool to be part of that, right?” I asked, intimidated by the notion of capturing such a high-profile life — or any life — in print. Jack shrugged. This was just one of thousands of assignments to cross his desk. He had better work stories: Wouldn’t I rather hear about the O. J. Simpson chase, or that time he’d argued with Jessica Biel over an infamous photo shoot? But for me, the conversation sparked a curiosity about obituaries, one that wouldn’t go away. I began reading obits like some people scroll through Facebook: as a midday work break.
I’ll concede that there is no practical purpose. I’m only 32, so I’m not scanning for the names of peers. Neither am I combing obits for newly available, rent-controlled apartments — a favorite Manhattan pastime. And I’m not reading them for some kind of professional edge. (An acquaintance told me about a former colleague, an advertising salesperson, who would read obits before approaching a potential client: “He didn’t want to lead with the pitch if someone’s mother had just died.” Fair enough.)
Still, it’s never felt like a strange hobby. I mean, I’ve tuned in to watch random people fall in love with milquetoast men on The Bachelor. I’ve swooned over porcelain farmhouse sinks on Fixer Upper. And now, I’m interested to know that Ida Mae Sills of Memphis, Tennessee, treated gravy like a beverage and that Harry Weathersby Stamps of Long Beach, California, excelled at eradicating mole crickets from his front yard. I’ve become obsessed with the minutiae of everyday life that gets distilled into a paragraph or three. Is reading about the deaths of strangers in print really all that different than watching the lives of strangers on TV?
According to some experts, yes — and it makes me a bit of a freak. Mario Garrett, a professor in the school of social work at San Diego State University and the author of several books on aging, points to something called Balte’s Selective Optimization with Compensation, or SOC theory, which posits that older adults are driven to seek an upside to the aging process. In reading obits, they find one: At least I’m not dead. But young people in their 20s and 30s, like me, “don’t yet need this affirmation that they are still alive, because they still feel immortal,” Garrett says. “If there is no personal connection to the person in the obituary, I cannot explain their reading it. I find it weird, unless they’re goths or those with morbid interests.”
I’m pretty sure I don’t fall in to either of those categories — I can count the times I’ve worn black eyeliner on one hand and the number of slasher films I’ve endured on the other. (I spent most of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hiding out in the theater’s bathroom.) So I must be an obits-reading oddity — a person without a death fetish who loves immersing herself in death literature.
Or perhaps I’m just part of a big, secret cult of obit readers who don’t discuss our taboo hobby in polite conversation. Maybe, in private, there are plenty of us.
“We’ve found that people of all ages are happy to part with their hard-earned money to read obituaries,” said Harry de Quetteville, former editor of the famous obituaries page at The Telegraph in London, and editor of the obit collection Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer: An Anthology of Great Lives in 365 Days. “They are the opposite of clickbait. Our obituaries have a big, loyal following — not just in Britain, but around the world. Only an adrenaline junkie or a completely unimaginative person could be bored by obits.”
De Quetteville says the fascination is easily explained: it comes down to great storytelling, evocative snapshots that are quickly digestible in a way biographies and other nonfiction genres aren’t. This is important, since humans have an inborn hunger for good stories. When we hear them, researchers say, our brains synthesize the hormone oxytocin, triggering an empathetic response. Reading obits can make you feel the fear and pride of an immigrant who started over in a new country, the awe of a mountain climber, the pain of an addict, the patience of a schoolteacher. In this way, stories sparked by death can make us feel more alive.
Take Tara Anne Rothberg, a 40-year-old hospitality professional who lost her mother eight months ago to breast cancer. In writing her mom’s obituary, she discovered an obsession with the genre and an unexpected outlet for empathy. She’s even found herself contributing to charities in the names of deceased strangers. “We love the story of an underdog who makes it or the child who came from nothing and built an empire,” Rothberg said. “I don’t walk away from them feeling sad — obituaries are inspirational.”
Inspirational, and also weirdly motivating. After a day in which I have not exactly covered myself in glory, I picture my hypothetical obit writer struggling for what to say: “Diane Stopyra, survived by the husband whose car she dented on a pole and the dogs whose flea medication she perpetually forgot to administer, once ate an entire loaf of banana bread one sliver at a time while Facebook stalking her ex’s sister’s cat. She really did mean to clean out her fridge, but there was a Columbo marathon happening on the Hallmark channel.” Suddenly, I feel the urge to get off the couch and accomplish something.
Apparently, this is also a pretty normal response to reading obits. “They prompt introspection,” said Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., Boston-based clinical psychologist, occasional obit reader, and author of the book How to Be Yourself. “They cause us to reflect on the narrative of our own life and what we want that life to mean. Young people especially might look to them for guidance, a way of tapping the wisdom of their elders.”
That’s true on a broader level, too. Taken collectively, obituaries serve as a medium for analyzing the values and beliefs of a society, and charting how they change over time. Consider the public outrage that erupted after a 2013 obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill in the New York Times led with the woman’s “mean beef stroganoff” rather than her significant scientific contributions. Would such a write-up have registered as tone deaf 50 years ago? Likely not.
“Obituaries are performative,” said Jacob Levernier, a data scientist and Bollinger Fellow in Library Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of the study “Identifying Virtues and Values Through Obituary Data-Mining,” published last year in The Journal of Value Inquiry. “They’re only partially about accurately reflecting a life. They also have a lot to do with the author of the obit curating what she or he feels are important pieces for a specific audience.” Translation: Obits reveal as much about their readers as their subjects.
I like to think I’m reading obituaries for this worthy kind of anthropological exercise, but my motivation could very well be far less noble. It’s possible my obsession stems from a need for reassurance during some ongoing, existential freakout. Lux Narayan — 40-something CEO of a social media intelligence company who counts scuba diving, climbing the Himalayas, and reading obits over scrambled eggs among his hobbies — last year gave a TED talk about the 2,000 Times obituaries he analyzed over a 20-month period for insight into human achievement. Among the takeaways? You don’t have to be famous to achieve something objectively fantastic.
“Obituaries are a reminder of what a completely average person can do,” said Jonathan Green, the 30-year-old Omaha native behind the Twitter account @GreatObits, which posts intriguing obituaries from around the world. One of his favorites (and mine, as well) is the 2017 New York Times write-up of Stanislav Petrov, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces during the Cold War. At one point, Soviet computers mistook the sun’s reflection on a cloud for intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from America. From inside a command center, after 15 seconds of shock, Petrov decided on a “50-50” hunch that this was a false alarm — he reported it to his superiors only as a system malfunction, ultimately sparing the world from nuclear holocaust. Later, he was reprimanded for breach of protocol.
I don’t have any delusions about one day saving the planet like Petrov or captivating the world like a member of the royal family. Most likely, my only legacy will be that I wrote stories like this one while cuddled up to a German shepherd (Gah! The flea meds!). And I’ve accepted this, for the most part. I think, when it comes down to it, I read obits because fellow humans wrote them, hoping that we’d see these words. And, more importantly, fellow humans lived them, hoping to be seen.