Obituary Taboos


Death is universal, and taboos surrounding death exist in various forms across cultures and times.  Today, dealing with death often involves publishing obituaries to commemorate those that have died.  Society, since antiquity, has generally reflected inherent respect for the dead, perhaps because of the mysterious nature that enshrouds death.  When individuals die, they often gain a new level or form of respect.  Obituaries often reflect this respect by focusing on the positive aspects of the deceased's lives and personalities – they usually follow the golden rule, 'if you don’t have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.' Taboo subjects are often left out or smoothed over with euphemisms.  However, culture is changing, and obituaries are beginning to embrace some taboos. 

Today, modern culture is transforming into a culture of candor.  With the dawn of the internet, the way we communicate and express ourselves has changed drastically.  More and more, obituaries are being published online – the internet has provided a new, public platform for dealing with death.  Online, people tend to have fewer inhibitions when it comes to what they express – something that may be a taboo to say out loud is often more freely expressed on the internet.  Obituaries published online reflect this trend, embracing honesty and being more straightforward when it comes to taboo subjects that may have to do with the cause of death or aspects of the deceased’s life, such as suicide or divorce.  Sometimes, obituaries can even be downright brutally honest when it comes to the negative aspects of the deceased.  Obituaries in print are also embracing candor more often rather than omitting taboo subjects or glazing over them with euphemisms. 

While the trend to avoid taboos is fading out, outright negative or offensive obituaries remain rare, though they are sometimes written.  With death, people sometimes feel the need to get things off their chest, especially if the deceased had a less-than-favorable effect on the lives of others.  Often, the more morbid and brutal obituaries don't make it to publishing.  As per policy, newspapers will not publish anything, including obituaries, that gives offense.  Websites where obituaries can be published online sometimes, but not always, have moderators that filter out negative and offensive obituaries.  Every now and then, negative obituaries do make it to publishing, and these negative obituaries often get a lot of attention as they are rare and shocking.  One such obituary, in which the relative of the deceased writing the piece was clearly glad of the individual's death, was published and went viral.  It was later taken down by a moderator – the version of truth about the deceased’s life was deemed too inappropriate for the public.  As such, while some taboo subjects are more openly discussed, other more abrasive truths are still culturally considered inappropriate.

The taboo against 'speaking ill of the dead' has persisted in Western culture since antiquity.  In the beginning of the 3rd century CE, the famous biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, attributed phrase, "de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est," to Chilon of Sparta.  The phrase, originally in Greek but translated into Latin in 1432 by an Italian theologian, translates to "of the dead, [speak] nothing but good" or, more loosely, "don’t speak ill of the dead."  As this taboo has existed since antiquity, so has breaking it. 

Today, though it is still generally considered bad manners to speak ill of the dead, obituaries that bash the dead are written and published.  Some writers may simply include some small backhanded comments aimed at the deceased, while others are much more hostile.  Obituaries are usually paid ads – this indicates that the people publishing the obituaries are willing to spend money to get their message about the deceased out to the public, and they are willing to publicly share their grievances.  Negative obituaries usually still reflect moral messages to the living – warnings of what to avoid in life. Motives behind the messages can vary.  Some may simply want to have the last word about someone who faulted them.  Some are truthful and open about pain caused by the now deceased. Some may intentionally seek a higher purpose in sharing negative information about the deceased. 

In obituaries, sometimes the deceased is not the victim of the writer’s backhanded comments or brutal words; instead, sometimes obituary writers will bash the living.  Relatives may be the targets of negativity in obituaries, or, perhaps, a political party.  While commemorating the dead, obituaries are sometimes used as a means for the person writing the obituary to publicly share personal viewpoints that aren't always agreed upon.

Some individuals choose to write their own obituaries before dying for various reasons.  Self-written obituaries sometimes break the norm by having a more confessional tone.  The person writing may find valuable freedom in expressing himself through a text that won’t be published until after his death – it may be easier or less intimidating than opening up about issues while alive.  Confessions shared may be funny anecdotes or more serious offenses.

While taboo subjects are still often omitted or glossed over with euphemisms, this trend is beginning to go out of style.  Now, people are more frequently embracing the harsher truths and realities of life in obituaries.  Euphemisms have been frequently used to underplay the deceased’s character flaws and are often used when referring to the death of the individual.  This tendency to evade reality may reflect the living’s fear about how their own lives will one day be remembered.  Euphemisms, such as ‘eccentric’ when referring to a social outcast, 'a colorful character' when referring to a boisterous or obnoxious individual, or 'didn’t suffer fools gladly' when referring to an impatient person, are common.  Even in obituaries, death itself has been a taboo subject.  Euphemisms are often used to refer to the individual’s death – the person has 'passed on,' 'departed,' 'is no longer with us,' 'has slipped into eternal rest,' etc.  If the term, 'tragically,' is used, the cause of death was likely an accident, or if 'suddenly' or 'unexpectedly' are used, the death was likely suicide. 

However, though still common, euphemisms are a fading trend.  Subjects that were once taboo are beginning to be confronted and embraced in obituaries.  Now, more honest stories of the deceased are being shared – the truth is more important.  In the past, topics, such as suicide, divorce, sexuality, addiction, criminal activities, etc., were usually avoided.  These subjects are more frequently included in obituaries.  This new pattern of honesty about the lives of the dead often serves as lessons to the living.  Including a person’s battle with depression or HIV/AIDS, for example, can raise awareness about the issues and serve as a call to action – obituary writers that embrace taboo subjects may seek to bring about change in the world. 

While our deference towards the dead remains prominent, the truth, though sometimes harsh, is championed in obituaries now.  Though still better to focus on the positive aspects of lives lived, the negative elements are no longer omitted or toned down with euphemisms as often.