I always read the obits. Article-length obits in the Guardian and the New York Times are usually very well-written, although the paid obits in the NYT are usually as pretentious and badly put together as anything you will see in a small-town paper. The Guardian’s other lives obits feature wonderful portraits of notable, relatively unknown people. The Seattle Times generally does a decent job and encourages people to get creative with pictures and stories in paid obits (which thereby become more profitable). When I’m away from home, I always buy local newspapers and magazines and, yes, I’ll read the obits every day. If I wouldn’t have paid attention to the obits, I still wouldn’t know about such incredible people as Patrick Leigh Fermor or Horacio Coppola.
In other countries, the obits tell you a lot about how people feel about death and dying, who they love and what they fear. There’s nothing like the tense emotion, expressed in few well-chosen words, of the “Todesanzeige” (notification of death) in German newspapers. In Italian cities, you see obit posters on billboards and walls, often next to advertising, often with heartfelt messages and beautiful photographs of the deceased.
But when it comes to companies? Nothing, really. You find pictures, bios, and lists of the leadership group, key people, or even the entire team. Sometimes, a notice may commemorate a founder or past CEO who is no longer living. For the most part, nobody seems to die at work, or if they do, it’s a tragedy of which you don’t want to remind anybody. That’s too bad.
If I were apply for a job or wanted to choose a product or service, I would definitely read a company’s obits first. In doing so, I would look to get a sense of how the organization treats and values people. After all—let’s get real—people do die while they have jobs, and it will probably happen more and more. By choice or because of necessity, many of us will still be employed when we die, although probably very few of us will have this happen to them while we’re in the actual workplace—although that, too, is not uncommon.
So, why not publish obituaries along with your other content?
They should be part of the “about” section. Recent obits would stay up for a certain amount of time, say 90 days. After that, they would be in an archive, where one could still access them. As employees get older and are not ready to withdraw from the workplace, you might even bring up the subject with them—maybe they would like to write their own. I know I’d take the opportunity.
What should be included in an employee obit? Here are some suggestions:
- Basics of the employee’s biography and family
- Role or roles at the company
- Special accomplishments and awards, including unique contributions to the company
- If you can state it authentically, how the person felt about working at the company—what the engagement meant
- The employee’s unique style in leadership, communications, building relationships, serving clients and customers, designing innovation, and so on
- How the deceased mentored and supported other employees
- Quotes from colleagues and customers about this person
- What the employee was known for—creativity, tenacity, sense of humor, efficiency, warmth, and other qualities
- A photo portrait from early in the life of the employment relationship, and one from later
If you have a writer develop the story of a deceased employee with respect, elegance, and good taste, and publish it, I promise people will appreciate it—not just the employee’s family and colleagues, but also the customers and business partners you deal with. While death is a taboo subject for many of us, we all know it will happen to everybody without exception, it doesn’t help pretending otherwise, and we actually appreciate some assistance in facing reality. And, not to be crass, there is a business advantage to offering great obits on your site. If you honor your people in a beautiful, written appreciation, you will definitely stand out from the many companies that would never consider doing so. It shows that you are more mature, caring, realistic, and thoughtful than they are. Who knows, maybe even your products and services are more deserving of consideration than theirs.