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Death notices

  • 08 March 2023
Welcome to 'Stray Thoughts', where the Eureka Street editorial team muses on ethical and social challenges we've noted throughout the week.  A couple of weeks ago I lingered over my morning coffee and made it all the way to the death notices page of one of the metropolitan dailies. I had enough time to sit and read through a number of them.

A sometime ‘underworld’ figure farewelling a friend of his parents. Heartfelt and generous. A prominent Melburnian, or at least a Melburnian with a prominent family name, sent off with words of valediction from family and associates. Stiff and somehow genuine. Then an RSL club saying goodbye to one of its staunchest members. Nephews and nieces farewelling aunts and uncles. Barely half a page, full of stories.

I remember my dad on the phone at my grandparents, on the afternoon my granddad died. Carefully dictating a death notice. First to The Age, then to The Herald Sun. It was part of the process of dealing with death. One of those activities that recognises the dignity of the one who has died in a community of people who care.

Many calls were made that day, and in days to come informing family and friends. Calls came in, too, from those who had lost touch and seen the notice. My grandparents themselves were assiduous readers of the death notices, often commenting over the breakfast table on someone long forgotten, mentioned on the page. At times putting a funeral date in the calendar for later in the week.

When my grandmother died, her death noticed had to be uploaded online. Not quite so poignant as reading carefully chosen words over the phone. Fewer and fewer death notices make it to the pages of the paper. Maybe they are shared on tribute pages online. Maybe people see little need to announce a death. Maybe funerals by invitation only. There are certainly times where a certain tragedy might dictate discretion. Ordinarily though, the public announcement of death and the open invitation to commend and remember together recognises that each life is a web of relationships, full of rich and untameable connections.

When has a death notice meant something to you? What do we lose with their apparent demise? What are new ways we can publicly share the death and celebrate the life of those for whom we are responsible?

Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also