I watched a TED Talk this week on my Mac and it absolutely blew me away. The subject: obituaries. TED is a big global organisation that allows terrific speakers to get on stage and talk for about 15 minutes on a subject that they feel passionate about or know a lot about. If you have not yet discovered TED Talks, then I would encourage you to get online and open up a whole new world of insight, knowledge, perspective and amazing stuff. The broad range of subjects caters for all, and every day I get a TED Talk sent to my inbox. So when I saw one on obituaries, I just had to watch it for curiosity.
The speaker had completed a study of 2,000 obituaries over a 12-month period that had been written in newspapers such as the New York Times. The obituaries he studied were non-paid types. I then discovered from this that a newspaper editor can simply write an obituary on someone or accept a paid-for obituary that, say, the family of the deceased want to place in the newspaper to acknowledge his or her contribution to the world. So, these were the non-paid type. I immediately thought about the massive amount of work the speaker had to do to read through all this content. But his business was actually analytics and he had a team, and some very powerful software, to do it.
What he found was simply amazing and paints a poignant picture. On a light-hearted note, the most popular name in obituaries was “John”. There you go, the simple biblical moniker – John – gets first place in the obituary bragging rights. I look forward to the day when the name changes to something more feminine, like Hannah. Anyway, by rifling through all the thousands of words in these obituaries, other favourite terms emerged.
Words like “leader”, as one would expect, ranked highly. But this then made the speaker and his teams delve deeper as he wanted more than this. “Leader” was too easy and a term you would equate with being in an obituary in the first place. I guess it’s fair to say that only a tiny percentage of the population get the privilege of being recognised in a non-paid obituary in a national newspaper. Leaders in business or politics usually get recognised in this way. But more was needed to really understand what the true essence of what an obituary meant.
The speaker then split 2,000 obituaries into “famous” and “non-famous”. A “famous” would be a well-known politician, with the “non-famous” someone who had done something very special in a different genre. And here is where it gets really interesting. Drum role please ... the primary and most significant verbiage and phrase that weaved through both famous and non-famous was ... “helped”. How amazing is that, I thought. The non-famous actually stood out a mile in their helpfulness to others.
This is key arbiter that set them apart as that tiny percentage of the population that deserve a non-paid obituary. The work they had done to help people, neighbourhoods, movements, society and country was what catapulted them into obituary stardom. Many of these terrific human beings had money and made money. Some left top jobs or professions to help others. Some jumped off the trajectory they were on to take a different path, to help others. And the obituary recognised this.
This made me think about obituaries in a very different light. Indeed, it made me contemplate some of the stunning people I know and have met. I’ve been very guilty in life of judging people as “successful” by the amount of money that they made or had built up. Yes, of course it is right to make sure you and your family are secure after all – as the air stewardess says to me every time I fly, “fix your own life jacket, before you help others”. But it’s the “help others” that I wonder about. I know a great deal of tremendous people who put helping others at the heart of what they do and at the forefront of their minds. Whether they get or expect any thanks for this, I do not know. But they crack on nevertheless.
So how do we recognise them? They will not all get the honour of a non-paid obituary in the newspaper. But I wonder if you could take the time now to write that wonderful obituary to them and for them. You might simply call it a letter, an e-mail or a recognition in some way for who they are: a family member, care worker, nurse, clergyman, or a business person.
In short: why wait until they pass? Tell them now how special they are, as they help.