12/09/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obituaries Could Change the World

I read the New York Times obits every week. My wife worries that I am being morbid. Some "age" thing happening as I get grey and visibly older. So, why do I care who has died or who has shuffled off the mortal coil? I think it is because I want to know how we are remembered and why. Maybe it is the same reason that my friends and I -- like Tom and Huck -- have occasionally imagined listening in on our own funerals to hear what people might say about us. Were we liked? Admired?

Surely wanting to be remembered is a big ego thing. We want to feel we mattered, that we were noticed. But in reading the obits, a thought has started nagging at me. What if these few short words (whether written by journalists for the famous and celebrated, or by loving family members as a paid tribute) were focused more on what the deceased had done to make the planet a better place, than their more material accomplishments? Could obituaries become a roadmap for changing the planet?

I like to think that I will not cease to exist once my body is gone. This is not a spiritual thing. It is a keen sense of me wanting to be worth more than my bones, blood, skin and hair. I want to have made a difference, to be part of something that is more durable than my flesh. I want to think that all the resources I have consumed during my life did not simply feed me, but added something worthwhile to the earth. Did I add a brick to the wall of science, a thread to the fabric of society, a link to the chain of humanity?

Okay, those contributions all sound lofty, but I believe they can be achieved with little gifts made each day. They are things eminently worthy of being remembered for. As the world remembers the life of the great Nelson Mandela, perhaps that is one lesson we might draw.


The New York City Highline points New Yorkers to a more ecologically conscious and sustainable way of living. Photo by Joshua Bousel.

What if thousands, or millions of us wanted to be remembered because our lives touched others, and made the world just that much better? Might that inspire an outpouring of voluntary acts of kindness, sustainable life choices (biking, composting, recycling) and respect for others' ideas (especially those we disagree with) by citizens across the world who wished simply to be remembered well?

If thinking about our passing became less about: "Was I noticed?" and more about: "Did I make a difference?" then obituaries could change the world.