Frazer Blog

Moving Beyond the Traditional Obituary: Painful but Powerful Pleas for Individual and Social Change

by | Jun 3, 2015 | For Families

Someone writing in a notebook next to a laptop

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of news reports and social media shares regarding notable obituaries. These obituaries are notable and thus newsworthy because they deviate from the more traditional obituary. They contain social or political messages either from the deceased him/herself or from the deceased’s family. The messages are directed towards the general public (or at least the readers of the obit) and are intended to either relay the deceased’s position on a social issue or to warn against a social harm, and then in both cases to encourage specific action.

Obituaries That Relay the Deceased’s Position on a Social Issue

Some of the more recent newsworthy obituaries contain concise, very specific social directives from the deceased. For example, the obituary for Patricia M. Shong, of Auburn, Massachusetts, who died at age 72 on May 18, 2015, ended with the statement:

“She would also like us to set the record straight for her: Brady is innocent!!” 

(Referring to the recent “Deflategate” scandal involving New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady).

Similarly, the obituary for Larry Darrell Upright who died at age 81 in a Concord, North Carolina hospital on April 13, 2015, concludes with this request:

“The family respectfully asks that you do not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Of course, it is hard to know whether these concise, specific social directives will encourage others to act in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the use of the obituary as a platform for social/political causes.

Obituaries That Warn Against Social Harm

The other category of notable obituaries, those that warn against a social harm, are lauded in news reports for their surprising honesty.

And unlike the concise, specific social directives in the obituaries mentioned above, these obituaries may have more power to encourage action and create change. They are stories of young lives lost too soon to drugs, alcohol, and/or suicide and offer a brief glimpse inside the painful reality of the deceased’s life as well as that of his/her family. The intent behind these courageously raw obituaries is to educate others about the perils of drugs and/or alcohol; to use the family’s experience with tragedy to encourage both individual and social change.

Spencer Watson Seupel of High Falls, New York took his own life on February 17, 2012. In his obituary, his family wrote about the role alcohol played in his death:

“Drinking sabotaged all that: seductive, deadly alcohol. The drug that brings down the walls and helps us feel close – as long as we’re drunk. The drug that circles back and rakes out your heart. …

Thursday night was one of those binge nights at the frat. He had a fight with his best friend. He said he was going to kill himself. He locked his door and did it. He did not leave a note. He did not look for help. Alcohol brought down those prefabricated walls, and all that was left was a thoughtless pain.

It was stupid and impulsive and he would not have done this thing if he had not been drunk. Spencer had plans and goals and family that loved him. He knew this. We talked about it -Spencer said he would never do such a thing. But he did. Because of alcohol. The drunken impulse in a moment of despair that can never be taken back. …”

Spencer’s family then made a plea that we learn from their son’s death:

“Remember the meaning of this tragedy. If a young man or woman says maybe I’ll kill myself, tell someone. Don’t leave him alone. If a young man or woman drinks too much, say something. It’s not a game; it’s a symptom. And let us find and encourage within ourselves, within our society, those gifts that make each of us special: not star power, not intellectual prowess, but the ineffable mystery and extraordinary beauty of the simple human heart.”

The more recent obituaries written about the (unrelated) drug overdose deaths of two young men and a 24-year-old young woman are equally heart wrenching yet illuminating. Clay William Shepard (age 23) from Apex, North Carolina passed away on May 17, 2015. His obituary reads, in part:

“We loved Clay with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. This note isn’t an attempt to assign blame for Clay’s death. It’s not to vent our anger and frustration at a world where drugs can be ordered and delivered through the internet. We write this obituary in hope that it may provide an insight to those that need to change their behavior one night at a time. …

To all children, this note is a simple reminder that there are people who love you, with everything they have and no matter what you do – don’t be too afraid/ashamed/scared, too anything, to ask for help. To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them – even when the surface is calm, the water may be turbulent just beneath. Clay’s struggles have ended. He is finally at peace.”

Daniel Joseph Wolanski (age 24) of Avon Lake Ohio passed away on April 20, 2015, as a result of a heroin overdose. In his obituary, his family wrote:

“Over the course of DJ’s life, he made many bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. Unfortunately, his five year addiction and battle with heroin took over. His family and friends truly loved him and tried everything from being supportive to tough love as he struggled with his own inner demons and heroin. …

DJ often talked about the growing number of friends that he had lost to this destructive drug and how it destroyed families. They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your “gut instinct” says something is wrong, it most likely is. Get involved. Do everything within your power to provide help. Don’t believe the logical sounding reasons of where their money is going or why they act so different. Don’t believe them when they say they’re clean.”

And finally, Molly Alice Park born in York, Maine passed away on April 15, 2015, also as a result of a heroin overdose. Her obituary reads, in part:

“Along Molly’s journey through life, she made a lot of bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. She fought her addiction to heroin for at least five years and had experienced a near fatal overdose before. Molly’s family truly loved her and tried to be as supportive as possible as she struggled with the heroin epidemic that has been so destructive to individuals and families in her age bracket.”

Molly’s family concludes by asking “If you have any loved one’s who are fighting addiction, … do everything possible to be supportive, and guide them to rehabilitation before it is too late.”

All four of these obituaries move beyond the traditional, which typically includes a chronological life story focused on accomplishments and affiliations but little about the deceased’s character, struggles or demons. Although undoubtedly difficult to write, these honestly penned reflections of their loved ones’ battles in life offer insightful lessons for us all. As Steve Miller, professional obituary writer currently for Bloomberg News, so articulately expressed:

“There is a gap in our written culture. We need accounts that critically assess the impact of an individual’s life, accounts written outside the constraints of the traditional obituary. The traditional obituary is a familiar round, from birth to grave with some interesting stuff in between. But this is just one kind of story. The dead have so many more tales to tell us than this. …

But we must speak ill of the dead, and we must speak well of them too. If we are to learn from the dead, or enjoy their lives in a meaningful way, we must speak of them freely, think of them objectively and creatively, and report on them with honesty and fervor and humor.”

The notable obituaries mentioned here do as Miller suggests and provide a different kind of story, a story that shouldn’t be masked or ignored. More importantly, they are a call to individual and social action; they tell us what we should look for and what we can do to support those with alcohol or drug addictions and appeal to those suffering from these addictions to change. We applaud these families for their bravery in giving us the opportunity to learn from their tragic experiences. May their honest tributes be a catalyst for both individual and social change in honor of their lost loved ones.

Have you read any obituaries that called for change? Share them in the comments below!


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