His real break came as a stuntman in the Hollywood movie “On the Beach,” about survivors of a nuclear war, which was filmed in Melbourne, his hometown, in 1959. It starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. “He watched Gregory Peck do 27 takes and thought, ‘A mug could do that,’ ” Rhoda Roberts, Mr. Hunter’s former wife, told The Daily Telegraph of Sydney.
It’s gems like this excerpt from actor Bill Hunter’s obituary that have long made the obituary page one of my favourite parts of the newspaper. When somebody’s life is summed up in an article, you don’t just get the latest newsworthy glimpse, scandal or accomplishment: you get the broad strokes, the highlights and the quirky, characteristic anecdotes.
But all-too-appropriately, the obituary feels like it’s dying. In a world in which Facebook profiles turn into living memorials, and in which anyone’s life can increasingly be surveyed through its digital remains, the newspaper obituary feels strangely static. The information and reflections it contains may (or may not) compete with a Wikipedia entry in doing justice to someone’s public profile, but by virtue of the standard journalistic practice of pre-writing notables’ obituaries, they are intrinsically dated — so much so that Elizabeth Taylor actually outlived the journalist who wrote her obituary. They not only fail to capture the reactions and sentiments that can emerge around the news of someone’s death; they may actually miss the larger cultural zeitgeist that a significant loss can evoke or even trigger.
I’m not suggesting that obituaries should be read on your iPad, accompanied by a scrolling Twitter feed in which people record their reactions to the tragic news. That’s merely crass, without actually crossing over the chasm and becoming so crass as to actually redefine the obituary itself.
To cross the crassness chasm, you’ve got to be ruthlessly honest about how obituaries are actually written and read. Obituaries are scorecards: the final report card on what you did (or didn’t do) with your life. And how better to compile the ultimate scorecard than by crowdsourcing its verdict?
Surely I’m not the only person who reads an obituary with a mental soundtrack that goes “wow…wow…geez…wow…ouch…wow”. I scan back up to the deceased’s age, weigh their accomplishments agains their years, decide whether their death was timely or tragic. I pore over the list of survivors and the quotes from friends and family for a sense of the personal life that flourished or shrank in the shadow of the public life. And then I find myself asking: if this were my obituary, how would I feel about how I’d lived my life?
Thanks to the miracle of crowdsourcing tools like Uservoice and Ideastorm, that question could in theory be converted to a metric. Just run through the standard battery of social media features and give them a morbid spin:
- Let people vote obituaries up or down, according to whether you would be happy living that life.
- Give people their personal “favorites” list of the 10 people they’d most like to be like by the time they die.
- Share an obituary on Facebook or Twitter, tagging the friends you think should aspire to live like this person did.
- Break the scoring down by category so you can rate each deceased person according to professional accomplishments, apparent quality of personal life, or for that matter, hotness.
- Create a leader board of the best dead people who ever lived.
As horrific as this sounds, there is actually a shred of virtue in the scheme. At its best, the instinct to read an obituary as a scorecard is an opportunity to reflect on what does or doesn’t amount to a life well-lived. Evaluate someone else’s life — the awards won vs. marriages destroyed, the public accomplishments vs. the private demons — and you are implicitly thinking through your own mortality. What do you want your obituary to say? How would you want your scorecard to rate? And most of all, which combination of software tools will help you achieve it?