Obituaries, eulogies, narratives and making autobiography

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When I take my daughter to daycare in the morning we walk from the train station across a cemetery. While she is fascinated by all the pretty flowers I am fascinated by all the graves, which are neatly divided into 37 different religious or ethnic groups. We pass names, signs, symbols, portraits and statues in the Greek Orthodox, Japanese Shinto, Roman Catholic, Chinese, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish and Muslim sections. And we’ve only seen a fraction of the graves put up to remember the lives which ended here.

While walking past the graves with its inscriptions I think about all the people who ended up exactly here. The stories that finished here. They began many years ago in Brooklyn, Macedonia, Palermo, Osaka, Glasgow, Mogadishu and Odessa without anyone knowing that they would end in Perth in Western Australia.

In the same morbid/amazed way, the part in the newspapers which most fascinates me these days is the obituaries. The stories of lives, the essence of a person distilled into a note in a newspaper. And as with everything I read, the first question I always ask is “who wrote this and why?”. Obituaries are often written by colleagues, friends or family. Who decides this? What fragments of a life should be included? Who will compile it? What will be excluded?

“Bengt-Eric passed away on August 30, 92 years old…..

…after a slightly turbulent selection process Bengt-Eric could begin his life’s work as an army officer in 1964. In this role he could develop his creativity and initiative……

…he remained determined to beat the disease right up until he was told there was no longer any hope.

A one-sided, seemingly linear process towards the grave.

I have always been fascinated by stories, lives, destinies and how they seem logical and clear in hindsight. But when we live our life – as we make decisions and choose which futures we want – it’s never that clear. Logic was interrupted along the way. By strong emotions like love and hate. By visions, hopes and fears. By those low-probability, high-impact events, which we futurists call wild cards. All these triumph over plain old boring rationality and linearity, and they tweak and bend our narratives away from and beyond the highway to heaven or hell.

I increasingly live my life without thinking about a career, a path towards something, or having aims, goals or strategies. The uncertainty of everything around me makes such an exercise pretty pointless. Sure, sometimes it’s good to see life as a linear path, but if I imagine it as a narrative with many unexpected twists and turns it makes it all easier to live for me.

In a blog post last year, Arianna Huffington asked the questions Are You Living Your Eulogy or Your CV? and Why do we spend so much time on what our eulogy is not going to be?

“No matter how much a person spends his or her life burning the candle at both ends, chasing a toxic definition of success and generally missing out on life, the eulogy is always about the other stuff: what they gave, how they connected, how much they meant to the lives of the real people around them, small kindnesses, lifelong passions and what made them laugh.”

While living our lives, it is probably wise to think about our eulogies, and what we would like them to be. But instead of seeing life as an eulogy, written by someone else, we might see it as making autobiography. In Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative,  Paul John Eakin writes;

“Autobiography is naturally regarded as an art of retrospect, but making autobiography is equally part of the fabric of our ongoing experience. We tell the stories of our lives piecemeal, and these stories are not merely about our selves but also an integral part of them. In this way we “live autobiographically”; we have narrative identities.”

Do you live autobiographically?

What is your narrative identity?

 

 

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