From the heroic to the heartfelt – obits in Iceland

Charles Cowling


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? 

8 thoughts on “From the heroic to the heartfelt – obits in Iceland

  1. Charles Cowling

    Richard, I for one don’t reject religion, I just never accepted it. And no, I disagree about any such uncertainty, and about the implication that religion is some prerequisite for belief in afterlife – were it not for the distortion of the concept of time as running consecutively “before”, “during” and “after” death, “after”life would be something I do indeed believe in. Similarly with “re”-incarnation – multi-incarnation sounds more like it to me.

    (By the way, I’m certain it is not your intention, but it could be helpful to point out that those who have no interest in religion may find such assertions smack of arrogance, a sort of ‘I told you so’ being handed down.)

    The moments I spent brushing my mother’s corpse’s hair were the most intimate I can remember having with her (bearing in mind I can’t remember sucking at her breast); I have no illusion that it was an interaction, yet it is a moment I cherish for the gesture it enabled in me. It takes time, and reflection, to separate a person from her body; which is the very reason we have a body present at a funeral. What other purpose does it serve?

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    What a valuable point, Kathryn. So since the function of a funeral, whatever the belief context, is a transition from physical presence to meanings only (spiritual, symbolic, or purely in the realm of personal memory)we should expect such moments of transition around a coffin. And maybe we should gently encourage them.

    The man I refer to chose to sing to his father’s coffin, and he said he’d never sung to his father whilst he was alive, so (and he seemed suddenly to realise this)”I guess this is my last chance.” At the level of pure reason, it made no difference whether he’d sung the song there and then, the day before, or the middle of next week, but to him, it was a moment of intense transfer of meaning, I think. He managed one verse and chorus before the seized up, but I bet he will be glad he did that until someone does something similar over his coffin.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    I wonder whether addressing the coffin might be simply an indicator of the liminal status of the dead body during a funeral ritual, rather than any measure of belief in afterlives?

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Only yesterday, a son addressed his father’s coffin. Neither father nor son, as far as I can tell, believed, or half-believed, in an afterlife and a soul. (I’m reporting, not triumphing.)

    It seemed to me a natural enough way for the son to come to terms with the end of his father’s life, and to assert that all that his father means to him and everything his father gave him stays with him.

    I note and will borrow if I may, Rupert, your point about suggesting the mourner might address either the congregation or the coffin. I don’t think the son yesterday had planned to turn to the coffin, but I think it suddenly dawned on him that he “could.” Wish I’d been more deliberate about suggesting it.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Rupert, isn’t it a sign of man’s ongoing uncertainty about wholesale rejection of religion and the afterlife that the bereaved continue to address the dead? Whether religious or not, we’re complex beings. Are they simply projecting on the corpse the loving memories of the living person, or are they at least half-believing his soul lives on?

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    I think the most interesting thing is not the changing tone, but the way it is addressed directly to the dead man.
    It is a point we always make when talking through what anyone will say at a funeral; that they can say it to us, or they can say it to them. When we point this distinction out in our opening words, anyone who may be speaking spontaneously increasingly address the dead. These are non religious funerals with no implication of an afterlife, you would expect this impulse to weaken with secularisation, but it actually becomes stronger.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Vale, thanks for this interesting post about the Morgungblaðið’s initiative to publish the obituaries of its Icelandic readers.

    The question you raise about society’s identification with community shifting to the personal and individual is important.

    At Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, those brought up in the older tradition were astonished to hear pop songs and applause at a funeral, and to see mourners who wept at one moment and took photographs a few minutes later. Those brought up since the changes were equally annoyed by the restraint and self-discipline of the other half of the nation, seeing it as a failure to show correct emotion.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Blimey Charles, why don’t you ask us a tricky question instead of this easy stuff? But – very good questions.

    Eh? You mean, you expected an answer or two?
    H’m, well I’ll have a think over a glass of Valpolly, and get back to you in..a while.

    No doubt the Beatles had something to do with it….they certainly loosened my stays (metaphorically speaking..)

    Charles Cowling

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