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(A)I Wrote My Obituary
If you can't find the words, let a machine do it for you!
We’re writing our obituaries every day
I recently started reading an obituary every week1: I am, I confess, fascinated how the entire span of an often notable life can be compressed into a single page or so, and they also serve as a great reminder that someday you will die and will be unlikely to grace the back pages of a widely-read newspaper.
However, as you’ve all heard ad nauseum if you’re plugged into The Tinterweb 2023, AI is here to save us from all the difficult and annoying tasks that constitute a great deal of what we might call ‘living’, and the latest frontier to be
despoiled conquered is the cumbersome task of writing elegies for dead loved ones. For those of you that can’t find the words, AI platforms like Empathy, Legacies and Akeeva require only a bit of input around the essentials of someone’s life, personality and interests, and they’ll do the job for you. You can stick to feeling all the feelings without having to articulate any of the words that might help you2.
Here at Fiction and Persuasion we are nothing if not idiotic experimenters with words and media, so I plugged into The Matrix and wrote my own.
Sound the funereal dirge organ, it’s Michael’s AI-penned Obituary!
Michael "Hinesy" Hines, late of London, passed away on March 23, 2023 at Crouch End. He died at home after a bout of chronic flatulence. Michael was born on October 11, 1984 in The Hague. He had a successful career in advertising from 2007-2023, working as a strategist for some of the most renowned firms such as Ogilvy & Mather, Adam and Eve/DDB, TBWA Media Arts Lab, Apple, Saatchi and Saatchi, and Wieden + Kennedy. He aspired to mediocrity and achieved it. Michael was fiercely proud of the life he and Stephania had built together, and was known to be a man of many passions. He loved to write, run, listen to music and play guitar and poker, and was often heard laughing in a strangely high-pitched way. His family fondly remember the smell of his excellent cooking, as well as the endless stream of crap anecdotes, jokes and puns that formed the majority of his conversations. He treasured the day his beloved daughter Margot was born, and each day with her was better than the last. Despite his kindness, generosity, and curiosity, his arrogance and stubbornness were traits often associated with his name. Michael is survived by his wife Stephania; his daughter Margot; his brother William; his father Ian; his sister Emma; and his beloved dog Boggle. Michael was preceded in death by his mother, Patricia; his father, John; his brother, David; and his sister, Elizabeth. A wake will be held in honor of Michael at The Maynard Arms in Crouch End on [date and time]. The wake will include military parades and the playing of 'The Wild Ones' and 'The Next Life' by Suede. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Michael's memory. Expressions of condolences and other family wishes may be sent to his family.
This reminded me of the scene in Peep Show where Jez writes Mark’s Best Man’s Speech using a template he found online. It also flattens out all the nuance and gags: I included several accurate and highly uncomplimentary details about my personality in my prompts which the AI in its infinite wisdom stripped out.
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You might argue that these things are useful because they spit out a first draft that the bereaved will find so shit and offensive that they will be compelled to revise it to the point where it does the dear departed justice, but I doubt it. Perhaps it’s easy for someone who works in communication to pour scorn on stuff like this when it’s just helping tongue-tied and grieving people in their hour of need, but I can’t help feeling something important is being lost.
The problem is the age-old technological promise of reduced friction - the logic behind tools like this is something along the lines of ‘obituaries are hard, so why not let a machine write them for you?’. The people making stuff like this seem to miss the point that struggling to express loss, like all good writing, is supposed to be difficult: the act is a part of the grieving process probably as old as language. I have been the person trying and failing to find the right words to honour a dear dead loved one, but if anyone had offered to have an AI write mine for me I would probably have threatened to send them to meet their maker too. Yes, elegies are difficult, but they’re supposed to be. Resorting to clichés that are genuinely felt still seems better than slickly empty Hallmark words generated by a machine.
Having poured scorn all over it, I would still strongly recommend having someone write yours with an AI. Doing mine has so terrified me that I solemnly swear to be a better and more interesting human from this day forth. Think of it as like an AI version of the Ghost of Christmas Future, come to pay you a visit.
For the avoidance of doubt: to anyone in my family reading this, if I die and find out that you have used one of these tools for my memorial, I will come out of hell to haunt you.
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For anyone interested in engaging in this kind of morbid rubber-necking, I can strongly recommend The New York Times ‘Book of The Dead’ and The Economist Obituaries section.
If you would like to know how I would advertise one of these platforms, please send me a small payment and I will return you a freshly-minted communications strategy by direct mail.