Posted by Vale
Can the obituaries published in Icelandic newspapers tell us anything about our changing attitudes to death and dying?
Obituaries are a national pastime in Iceland. Every day the leading national newspaper – the Morgungblaðið – publishes pages and pages of them. And they are read avidly. One writer has even claimed that the passion Icelanders have for their obituaries is a sign of a ‘national obsession with death’.
Iceland’s obituaries are different. They are not about the rich or famous or worthy and they are not written by professional writers. Instead they are, simply, the personal tributes that family and friends make to the people they have lost. And, since the first decades of the last century, Iceland’s newspapers have published pages and pages of them every day, for free.
Over the years the style of obituary has changed and it was this that caught the attention of university researchers. In a paper published by Mortality (Letters to the dead: obituaries and identity memory and forgetting in Iceland) they look at these changes and ask questions about what they reveal about the changing attitudes to death.
Two examples make the point:
“Many memories surface [now that Ari is dead] as the man was an enormous personality, formed by difficult childhood…Of course Ari had to start working very early and maybe this experience shaped the way in which he made great demands on his family when it came to work. In the year 19xx Ari lost his wife who had stood as a rock by his side for almost thirty years. It was clear that this was a severe blow for Ari but he suffered his grief in silence. ‘I am Iceland’s battle,’ Ari said once on a happy occasion, and he certainly was the battle of Iceland, although the battleﬁeld was not one where people get killed. It was the ﬁeld of dreams and achievements of the man who with optimism and courage was instrumental in developing agriculture in his region from mud huts to modern buildings. Ari …was also famous for his hard work and it was like three shovels were being used when he was digging and three hammers being used when he was hammering. Ari was renowned for his helpfulness, and the bigger the favour asked the quicker he was to respond. . . . I offer Ari’s children and relatives my deepest sympathy. Iceland has now lost one of its best sons. Rest in peace.”
“My dear dad, how can one understand this? You, so young and ﬁt, are torn away from this earthly life just like that. We who still had so many things to do together. I know, men plan but God decides. Dear dad, I miss your kind words and your hugs terribly. As long as I can remember you have always made my wellbeing your priority. You were not just my dad but my best friend too. Nothing was too good for me. The memories accumulate, but they would ﬁll a whole book. This summer, which now draws to an end, we were allowed to be together even more than usually. The two of us spent most of it together and every day you’d say ‘How shall I spoil you today darling?’ . . .My dear dad, I know you are with God and that we will meet again, but until then I’ll seek solace in warm memories and in the prayer you taught me [a well known Icelandic prayer is reproduced]. Your loving daughter”
What has caused this shift from the reserved and heroic account of Ari’s life to the personal heartfelt emotions in the letter from daughter to father?
At a practical level the new obituaries started to appear 1994 when the paper – in response to popular demand – relaxed the rules about what could be written. In the research a number of possibilities are explored, including the suggestion that it marks a shift in a society from one where identification with community has shifted to the personal and individual. This may well be true – but, for any of us working with the bereaved isn’t the shift familiar? The services we create here in the UK are increasingly personal, full of emotion and personal feelings directly expressed.
If the changes can be traced to shifting social relationships in Iceland, what is driving the changes here in the UK? And when did we realise as a society that we wanted to do things differently? After Diana’s funeral perhaps?