An Ecologist’s Guide to Writing Obituaries
Wielding narrative power in global politics when things are dying…or dead.
Opinion by Clare Fieseler
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a young ecologist in the Anthropocene—how my job will be different from ecologists who came before. Perhaps my generation will be defined by our capacity to handle death and dying.
In 2004, I submitted an application that was to be my first step toward being a fourth-generation funeral director. My college sophomore self presented an audacious vision for applying sustainability sciences in an effort to “green” the toxic practices employed by most Catholic-serving funeral homes, including my family’s in Newark, New Jersey. The application statement was inspiring but, admittedly, sloppily compiled. Understandably, the business-mentoring-for-liberal-arts scholars program declined my submission. Then, in that very same week, a very different door opened: Dr. Janet Mann, renowned biologist and dolphin behaviorist, emailed to offer me a semester-long undergraduate position in her lab. The familiar gave way to the exciting, exotic unfamiliar.
How many would-be funeral directors make a sharp left and end up as marine ecologists? I felt my compass shift with each afternoon spent in Dr. Mann’s lab, cataloguing dorsal fin ID photos from the world’s only known tool-using dolphin pod. By semester’s end, I could envision the career I have now: chasing ocean horizons, unlocking discoveries, and studying the daily phenomena on our planet’s coral reefs.
Today, my underwater research routine is possibly as far as one could get from preparing the bodies of Newark’s dead Catholics. Or is it?
Obituaries Are No Joke
Outside Magazine recently published “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 million BC -2016).” It read like a drunk driver had just killed the prom queen. The Reef had a persona everybody liked, notable contributions to the community, and an avoidable, gut-wrenching end begot, in part, by the Australian government’s carelessness. The article went viral.
Scientists, myself included, decried the logical inaccuracies and pessimistic absolutism in the piece. I impulsively tweeted to set the record straight and fight pessimism: “I’m a scientist and I want to be clear: The Great Barrier Reef is NOT dead. Also, pessimism won’t help us save what’s left. #OceanOptimism.” Looking back, I realize I should have also taken the time and care to applaud the article.
Let me be clear: You don’t joke openly about the dead. That was a fundamental ethic—a “Burns’ Rule”—maintained by my great-grandfather, Joseph A. Burns, who opened a funeral home business on Sanford Avenue in Newark, New Jersey in 1916. My great-grandmother, Alice Burns, continued that ethic when Joe died and she took over the business, becoming New Jersey’s first female funeral director. After WWII, my grandmother and her three sisters inherited the “Burns Rules” of funeral directing.
“There were no jokes. No stories over drinks about [particular individuals]… There was no backstory. Our family always respected the dead. And that’s not the case with all [funeral homes],” says my aunt Rebecca Fields. I learned at an early age that decorum and stoicism were paramount when burying the dead.
What I never gave much thought to is that my family also wrote obituaries! Thousands of obituaries, including obits for some of Newark’s most notable Catholics.
Funeral directors are often the first point of contact for newspaper editors publishing the life stories of the deceased. “And obituaries are stories. Oh, yes,” says my cousin Richard McDonough, who has continued our family’s funeral directing legacy in Lambertville, New Jersey.
While there has been a great deal of discussion about the Outside obituary’s misinformation and the sensationalized scientific conclusions that led to its virality, no one has talked about the cultural power of the obituary narrative. Maybe that’s because obituaries are generally misunderstood. If obituaries are stories, and our brains are wired to respond to stories, perhaps this unique format wields a particular power to affect our emotions—power which can, and probably should, be harnessed to influence environmental priorities and policies.
Obituaries are a Form of Storytelling
Most people do not write their own obituary. Some people do. But in Richard’s 38 years of experience, he estimates that 95 percent were written by loved ones and edited by the funeral director. So, obituaries are second-hand stories.
The funeral director largely reports these co-written obituaries to the local papers. Journalists sometimes elaborate to highlight notable aspects of the life of the deceased, with the funeral director acting as a mediator between the reporter and the surviving family members. All that is to say, obituaries are not historical accounts. They are often hard to fact-check. The driving editorial perspective often has more to do with the survivors’ perceptions than reality. Some obituaries are very revealing, some purposefully sparse.
One of the “Burns’ Rules” started by my great-grandfather was that cause of death is never included in an obituary. As a family of practicing funeral directors, we’ve stuck by that for a century.
The main rationale: Cause of death is not anyone’s business but the deceased’s family. Also, obituaries are primarily about life—not death, nor finger pointing. Outside’s obituary strayed from this core element of the obituary genre by getting into the weeds of culpability: “No one knows if a serious effort could have saved the reef, but it is clear that no such effort was made. On the contrary, attempts to call attention to the reef’s plight were thwarted by the government of Australia itself.” At this point, the narrative went sour. And the readers’ emotional attention likely did as well.
Here’s the main objective when writing an obituary: “You have to make the deceased person seem real, real enough to give a sense of that life to a stranger.” My cousin Richard says the biggest challenge for families is deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The details need to summarize why the survivors cared so much for their deceased love one, and why we, the readers, should care, too.
In short, obituaries don’t place blame, but they do have a take-away. The Great Barrier Reef’s obituary, for example, sets you up to care about the Reef like it was a character in a 1960s folk ballad. The story climaxes by confirming one of our biggest cultural fears—that we indeed paved an ocean paradise and put up a parking lot. That emotional arc is why the Great Barrier Reef obituary was such an effective sucker punch to the gut. No traditional, fact-based reporting about the Great Barrier Reef has had that sort of effect, despite containing similar collections of facts about this year’s unprecedented coral mortality event.
Our brains crave the story format. Research tells us that narratives transport us. They make information more meaningful and memorable than when delivered in logical scientific format. And every type of narrative, including the obituary, leaves out facts to tell a clear story. Of course, there’s a slippery slope to the selective process of leaving out facts. When science communicators dramatize facts or prioritize entertainment value, the general public’s understanding of science is suddenly at risk.
The most egregious examples of this are the fake science “documentaries.” Traditional natural history programs have always been highly editorialized and edited. But as a young scientist moving in a world of millennials and new media, I worry that mass media consumers today don’t know what to believe. Or how to feel. Are mermaids real or fake? Are the reefs really dying? Is the sky actually falling this time around?
The Power and Persuasion of Obituaries
I don’t believe Outside’s “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)” made our existing cultural confusion over ecological affairs any worse. Instead, I think it was the difficult family sit-down we all needed.
The “death” of species and entire habitats is indeed happening. We can’t pretend otherwise. The thing about being raised in a family of funeral directors is that I learned from an early age to not fear death. Even as kids, we talked about it openly. There was just no way around it.
The first step to getting a handle on ecological death and dying is by talking about it. Environmental obituaries confront us with the uneasy topic of death while couched in the comfortable recliner of story.
Few people realize that creating artful, attention-grabbing stories—and not crossing over into inaccurate, unethical manipulation—is a science in itself. In 2014, I attended a colloquium at the historic National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC called the “Science of Science Communication II.”
Michael Dahlstrom, a journalism and mass communications professor at Iowa State, had been to the first iteration of the colloquium the year prior. He had returned, with others, to share a year-long research review of what is known about science communication. Some of that research suggests that environmental obituaries, when told right, are probably a good thing.
First, obituaries are ideal for persuasion and emotional engagement. It’s clear that “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef” was written for persuasive purposes—illustrating, in more than scientific terms, that an ecosystem’s demise is possible (or inevitable, depending on how you read it). While Kim Cobb of Georgia Tech argued in a Los Angeles Times interview that the article didn’t serve readers who already had “a profound misconception of what we know about coral resilience,” let’s be honest—addressing understandings and scientific misconceptions was never the point. Engagement was.
I was instantly engaged. So were the 88 people who retweeted my comment on the article. Even media outlets less inclined toward environmental topics, like BuzzFeed, were in on the debate. For me, engaging a wider audience with an emotionally persuasive story, and highlighting sides to the debate of ecosystem “death” (more accurately, collapse), serves a greater good. It also has more impact than a dry, detailed report on the topic.
Second, obituaries may help communicate death beyond the human scale. When you have abstract things that are dead or dying—like a species or a marine habitat—personification helps us wrap our minds around it. Otherwise, our brains have trouble making those logical leaps in scale.
As Dahlstrom writes, “Narratives, in essence, may represent a method of packaging phenomena into human scale.” In our Great Barrier Reef case, the processes and patterns of a coral reef ecosystem under unrecoverable demise are complex. Life on the reef is anything but singular. So saying the reef “died” or “could die” is technically not accurate. But in the narrative framework of an obituary, the metaphor sure is powerful. And I’d use it.
We empathize with fellow humans better than non-humans. Perhaps obituaries can help us empathize with big things, many things, and across worlds.
I worry that mass media consumers today don’t know what to believe. Or how to feel. Are mermaids real or fake? Are the reefs really dying? Is the sky actually falling this time around?
A Future for Environmental Obituaries?
My great-grandparents and relatives saw obituaries change tremendously since the early 1900s. These days, families want to include hobbies, anecdotes, or political leanings. Obituaries are now tweetable.
Science communication is changing, as well. Why not more environmental obituaries? Today, Americans seek scientific information primarily from television (34 percent) and the internet (35 percent). Politicians and the public are exposed to storytelling media more than ever before; they expect narrative. Although scientists have long held strict rules about how scientific information should be disseminated, some recognize that there is a time and a place for storytelling, and that time is now.
Earlier this month, The New York Times published a pseudo-obituary for the last known Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog. The director of research at Zoo Atlanta, who has personally led mountaintop rescue missions to find the species’ last survivor, memorialized in print the passing of the last known frog, known as “Toughie.”
The article read more like a requiem for an irreplaceable life penned by a loved one than an informed report on extinction. And yet, there was no finger pointing at agencies or responsible individuals. The science was concise and clear. I learned something new and important about the U.S. politics of saving endangered frogs: Charismatic megafauna like elephants and rhinos receive five times more financing from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service than amphibians when it comes to international conservation projects.
What the article did best was contextualize this loss as part of a wider, worrisome trend of imminent frog extinctions in the Anthropocene. Abstract global and temporal phenomena were folded down to the scale of one man and one frog.
Mendelson’s article has all the trappings of a great obituary, and an excellent story. It’s a good place for us to start to properly memorialize the next species that goes. Or, yes, even a prehumous memorialization, if it engages the right people and politics. I’m not against that.
Of course we need balance. One of the scientists I most admire, Dr. Nancy Knowlton, started hosting “Beyond the Obituaries” sessions at scientific conferences almost a decade ago. In the early 2000s, doom-and-gloom stories about future ecological catastrophe dominated, and Knowlton wanted to push back. Today she leads a social media movement #OceanOptimism that highlights thriving places. For every death story we must document, there are many more stories of resilience and recovery also worth sharing.
Communicating Death—and Decency—in Global Politics
There’s one last “Burns’ Rule” relevant to how I now think about ecological death—as well as my professional responsibilities as a young ecologist.
At a family gathering in 2014, my Aunt Rebecca told a story about a funeral our family had arranged many years earlier for the brother of one of her high school classmates. The boy was a young child when he died, and his sister had just thanked Rebecca for the kindness with which the service had been handled—and for the fact that they had never received a bill for the funeral. Upon hearing this story, my great-aunt Regina “Ginnie” Burns McBride replied nonchalantly, “My mother never sent the bill when we buried a child. Oh, no. Never.”
“Never. My parents knew what it was like to lose a child. And they never fully recovered from that. No, we never asked for payment from families who lost kids.”
What touches me about this story is their devotion to the mission and not just the work. My relatives made a living coping with death, yet quietly took measures to never distance their business ethic from the real weight of death.
How many child-sized caskets did my family pay for out of their own pocket? More than fifty? A hundred? When I pressed Ginnie on these details, she always seemed uninterested in these questions. Her response was something along these lines: Not sending the bills was the decent thing to do.
Decency goes a long way in the face of death and dying. I’m making a call for that in our varied scientific communications with the public and with politicians.
When I envision the many ways in which storytelling, satire, and environmental obituaries could backfire on conservation policy, I see a lack of decency and ethics at the source. That’s why my feelings are mixed about the Outside Magazine obituary. Was it unethical, and counterproductive, to immortalize the notion that no serious effort was made to save the reef? By assigning a cause of death—and placing the blame squarely on the Australian Government—the narrative lost some of its ability to engage and rally the widest possible readership.
If we leave out critical details for the sake of narrative clarity, we risk misleading—and perhaps missing opportunities to reverse death and dying. Yet while the narrative might have crossed a decency line by assigning blame, failing to recognize the life-saving measures that could have helped in the past—and could still help in the future—would be an equally grave mistake.
It was sheer excitement and exoticness that drew me so quickly to a job in ocean science. But that appeal has faded. The older I get, the more concerned I am with doing what’s needed, especially given this era of uncertain trauma, the Anthropocene. My hope for my generation of ecologists is that we take control of the problems handed to us—including rising extinction rates, collapsing ecosystems, complex solutions—and that we use every communication format at our disposal to communicate those essential truths politically and publically.
My generation of ecologists would do well to have a “Burns’ Rule” of our own, to keep the gravity of death and dying and hold it close to us. Let us write obituaries that are unapologetically emotional but didactic. The planet’s chances of survival will be better off for it.
Abstract global and temporal phenomena were folded down to the scale of one man and one frog.