Monday, November 14, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Rúnar Vignisson on the Icelandic art of writing obituaries

The Mourning Paper

Over the years Icelanders have started their day reading obituaries in the morning paper, selecting a few of the dozens offered and sitting tearful over them. For instead of making a good coffin for a loved one, as does Cash for his mother in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, we pay our respects by constructing a narrative that will help preserve the memory of the deceased.

“Kindred die . . . but the good name never dies of one who has done well,“ to cite the ancient Icelandic poem Sayings of the High One.

The obituary I am referring to is not a simple notice of a death, written by a journalist about a well known individual, although we have that kind, too. It’s a personal piece, typically written by a relative, a friend or a colleague, recounting his or her personal memories of the deceased. A big part of the Icelandic population will try their hand at writing obituaries in their lifetime and nearly every Icelander can expect to be the subject of such a piece. Not in their lifetime of course, but a week or so after they pass. It’s their very last sigh.


In the beginning, obituaries were only written about well-known individuals by people who weren’t all that close to them, allowing the writer to be composed and detached. Nowadays, obituaries are more often emotional, especially if written by a close relative – brother, sister, even mother, father or spouse – after an untimely death. In some cases the piece is a combination of eulogy and wailing: It’s hard to accept that you are gone, you who were so vibrant and... followed by the kind of praise that the deceased might not have heard in his or her lifetime. It will typically recount some honorable deeds of the deceased, how bravely he or she accepted death or battled a fatal illness, then a favored memory shared by both, accompanied by some emotional outpouring over the unbearable loss, and will end with condolences to the closest relatives. Writing an actual letter to the deceased has become more and more common, sometimes addressing the person by her nickname: Finally you get a letter from me, dear Sigga. There has also been a shift in emphasis from subject to author in that the obituary writer often expresses private thoughts and emotions in relation to the deceased – which even involves a hint of opportunistic showing off at times.

Should the deceased have made enemies in his or her lifetime, this is not a forum to get even. Furthermore, you are writing in a grief stricken state, maybe two or three days after the death of a beloved relative or friend, which makes you more sentimental, more wont to say something you wouldn’t say under other circumstances. You are not only pressed for time, for the obituaries generally appear on the day of the funeral and the deadline is two days earlier, but also have to be careful not to offend the closest relatives, whom you will in most cases meet at the funeral. You want to comfort them at a moment of great vulnerability. For that matter, you might be convinced your task is to comfort a big part of the nation, if you are paying tribute to a well-known individual. The fact that you knew the individual is a way to place yourself in a social context. You don’t want to soil the memory of someone who has recently passed away, that would only reflect badly on yourself.

Over the years, these obituaries have mainly appeared in one daily newspaper, called Morgunblaðið or The Morning Paper, although other national and local papers used to carry the odd obituary, especially if the deceased wasn't in agreement with the political leanings of Morgunblaðið, which was often the case during the Cold War. The paper is over a century old and has for most of its history published obituaries. The obituaries may even have kept the paper alive in recent years, helped it hold on to its subscribers, some of whom are said to buy the paper mainly for the obituaries. Obituaries now comprise up to a quarter of the paper, prompting wags to call it The Mourning Paper. Facebook is now becoming a medium for obituaries as well and often people post their obituaries from Morgunblaðið there while others write more informal remembrances exclusively on their Facebook walls.


Icelanders were only 86,000 in 1913, the year Morgunblaðið was founded. Now we are around 330,000. Still, the percentage of deceased persons who can expect to be honored with an obituary in Morgunblaðið has grown manifold. Nowadays 80–90% of dead Icelanders can expect an obituary on its pages and in tandem with newfound gender equality and increased longevity more women are now written about than men. Each person can also expect many more individual obituaries than earlier. The average number of obituaries per person is around 6, which means that some get only one or two while others can get as many as 20 or 30. This put a strain on a newspaper that had been suffering in an online environment and didn’t charge for running these obituaries, eventually forcing the editors to implement a limit on the length of each piece (it is now 3 kilobytes per tribute or about 500 words). They also decided that the closest relatives had to send in a brief bio of the deceased to be printed along with all the obituaries, as a kind of introduction to avoid repetitions of facts and allow the writers to focus on personal memories instead.

What can you say about a whole life in 500 words? Or, maybe I should rephrase the question, what are you “allowed” to say about a deceased person, for in that respect the obituaries reflect the times. You are not supposed to reveal much about the way the person died, although you can hint at it; you can say that the deceased battled bravely with an incurable disease, but if he or she committed suicide you can only hint at it vaguely, e.g. by saying something about her hard life and his sudden death. If the deceased was a victim of drug abuse, you wouldn’t in most cases state that directly either, although you may find the odd foolhardy obituary writer who goes against the grain. Bringing up sensitive issues such as alchoholism, homosexuality and criminal behavior is risky. But you are allowed to say that so and so was willful and headstrong, for these are traits that have been valued in Iceland for centuries as can been seen in the Icelandic Sagas, the data base of Icelandic culture.

There may be something weird or even creepy in writing about a recently deceased person, but there is also a lot of beauty in it. This I know from experience for I have written eleven obituaries. One I wrote about my father-in-law can be found here, and here in English. 


Writing and reading these obituaries has evolved into an important stage in our grieving process. It's a way to sum up a life and it's a way to say goodbye, to get in touch with one's feelings of loss, to be human, compassionate; all that. Whether these obituaries draw up a truthful picture of life in Iceland is doubtful for lives tend to be embellished, even when politicians are the subject matter! However, it is safe to say that reading them regularly gives you a sense of historical continuity. You can for instance still find obituaries about people who grew up in turf houses.

The custom fosters social cohesion. 

It may also be a means of discriminating between people.

This strange fascination with death may, however, simply be a small nation’s way of keeping track of who is still around and who is not. Most of us are after all related or tied together in one way or another. As a result, we are very curious about others, and a good obituary, or even a bad one for that matter, is a great way to satisfy that curiosity (maybe this effect is comparable to what Facebook does for us although that medium specializes in living people). Once in a while a writer will reach such heights that the obituary becomes literature.


Since obituaries have become such an ingrained custom in our culture, one may wonder whether the anticipation of an obituary affects in some subconscious way how we live. Are we trying to lead lives that will earn us at least a few obituaries? If you get none, it's like you didn't make a mark, hardly existed at all. What, an unpopular person? A loser? An outcast? And yet, when you read a dozen or more obituaries about the same individual you see relatively simple patterns emerge. Most obituary writers boil the life of the deceased down to the same things – she was so helpful, he was so reliable. And then you may ask yourself: A lifetime of activities and the essence of your life only amounts to this; is life really so short and simple when seen from the outside? And with trepidation you look at your own life and ask penetrating questions: What have I achieved or stood for in life? Is it worth an obituary or two? 

I don't think this little essay will earn me an obituary, but it might contribute to it in a small way. Anyway, how many would I like? One? Two? A whole page in the paper or even a special segment like the ones reserved for the most popular? 

Then again The Mourning Paper might have found a new home when my turn comes.

Rúnar Vignisson is an Icelandic author and translator. He has won several honors for his writing, among them The Icelandic Translation Award for J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood. Vignisson has translated books by many acclaimed American, English and Australian authors, such as Philip Roth, Amy Tan, William Faulkner, Ian McEwan and Elizabeth Jolley. He is the author of four novels and three collections of short stories and for his fiction he has been shortlisted for the Icelandic Literature Award and won the DV Cultural Prize for Literature. His short stories have been translated into Spanish, German, Polish, Chinese and English. Vignisson is currently director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iceland. 

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

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