From Iceland — Speaking To The Dead

Speaking To The Dead

Published January 26, 2018

“Those the gods love the most, die the youngest. These are the words that come to mind when I think of my friend Bergur,” reads one obituary, written about a 99-year-old Icelandic man and published in Morgunblaðið in 2008.

The man in question, Bergur lived a decent life if his obituary is anything to go by. He was well travelled, had a successful career and friends who clearly thought they were pretty funny. But really, he was just a regular person.

In Iceland, dying is all it takes to have your obituary published in the paper. In most places in the world, only the rich and accomplished are important enough for an obit in the column inches but here, the population is just small enough to make it doable.

And we love it, reading the obits is a national sport. One survey suggests that roughly one-third of Icelanders read them daily, and every day, the national paper Morgunblaðið devotes up to 10 pages to them.

Who gets to write them?

Anyone can write an obituary in Iceland and have it published in Morgunblaðið, so long as it doesn’t exceed the word count (3000 characters). Obituaries aren’t commissioned by the paper and Morgunblaðið doesn’t charge to publish them.

“We think the publishing of obituaries for free goes without saying, as a service to our readers,” said Karl Blöndal, deputy editor of Morgunblaðið when asked why they bear the cost.

And actually, there can be more than one obituary for one person. A child can write one for his mother, and so can that same woman’s spouse, grandchild, friend. Four separate obituaries for one person, all published in one issue. Usually on the day of that person’s funeral.

Sometimes people write obituaries on the birthday of the deceased or the anniversary of their death. Sometimes an obituary will be written about a couple only when both of them have died.

But always, it’s a personal goodbye, and always a photo of the deceased is published alongside the letter.

Why does everyone read them?

In a word? Culture. It’s ingrained in the Icelandic Every Day. In most Icelandic homes there’s even a drawer or a plastic sleeve with cutouts from the newspaper. Cutouts of obituaries written for friends or family, saved in remembrance and sifted through now and then over a cup of coffee.

Some posit Icelanders read obits because they’re nosey gossips, but anthropologist Arnar Arnarsson – who has published extensively on this topic – disagrees.

“I don’t think it is about being nosy as such at all,” Arnar said. “I think people read obituaries for many different reasons. Of course, often people know the deceased, or they know one of the writers. I think people also read yes to get a sense of lives worth living. People read simply for pleasure. There are obituaries that are exceptionally well-written. And of course, some obituaries contain revelations that people might be interested in finding out.”

Then there’s the historical angle to consider too.

The history of obituaries

Writing about and describing the dead has been an Icelandic past time traceable as far back as the Sagas and in some cases, the language hasn’t even changedespecially in the more traditional obituaries.

“Certain phrases, ways of describing people are clearly taken from the Sagas and the Eddic poems and used in the obituaries,” Arnar explained.

But you can see the appeal, right? A central motivating force in the Sagas is honour (heiður), and the protection and enhancement of honour. Similarly, the very aim of obituaries is to honour (heiðra) the memory of the person being written about.

The format of closure

These days though, rather than a formal list of life events, Icelandic obituaries have evolved since the roughly the 1980’s to resemble something closer to personal letters to the dead.

And why did it evolve?

In some cases, the format just didn’t fit. This is especially evident in letters to those whose lives don’t follow the traditional trajectory. Are their lives any less worthy of mention, just because they don’t have a list of university degrees, marriages or awards won to list in the paper?

“How unfair and grim life can be,” a mother and father wrote in an obituary for their child who died at only two weeks old. “But we have found comfort in the often spoken words, that the gods love most, those who die youngest. So it was, in your case.”

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