By Lenore Skenazy: People are dying older, but their obit pictures are getting younger.
People are dying older, but their obit pictures are getting younger.
That's what Ohio State University gerontologist Keith Anderson discovered when he examined 400 obituary photos from the years 1967, '77, '87 and '97. Poring over microfilm copies of a Cleveland newspaper's gloomiest pages, he and his colleague Jina Han tried to estimate the ages of the deceased from their pictures. They labeled any photos in which the people looked at least 15 years younger than their actual ages as "age inappropriate."
"Inappropriate" being today's preferred word for totally, utterly wrong. (Usually when dealing with kids' behavior, as in, "Stabbing your brother is inappropriate, sweetie." But that's another story.)
Anyway, while 17 percent of the obit photos were "age inappropriate" in 1967, the number has been going up, decade by decade, until finally, by 1997, it had more than doubled, to 36 percent.
And by the way, if the dearly departed was female, she was twice as likely to have an "age inappropriate" photo.
Clearly, Anderson says, "We were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the 1960s." Ageism has been on the rise, along with, well, age. And sexism? It never seems to die. Even among the dead.
Of course, it is not usually the dead who choose their obit photos. When my dad died, we sent a picture of him to the paper not as an 87-year-old with heart failure, but as a 65-year-old with a tennis racket. Old enough to still be "old," but young enough to still look vital.
Which leads to the question: At what age are we most representative of our "real" selves? In fact, when ARE we most ourselves? As giddy young folk? As middle-aged achievers? As folks grown older and wider?
"I thought the obit picture The Associated Press used of Bea Arthur was so wan and haggard it was disrespectful," says Susan Toepfer, a blogger for True/Slant and former editor of OK! magazine. "The least we owe the dead is a glamorous exit!"
But that depends on whether we see age as triumph or travesty. Wan and haggard — that's what Bea was at the end. To remember her in her "heyday" may be a nice way to honor her memory. But it's also a way of saying, "You used to be someone important (or beautiful), and that is how we will remember you." The corollary being: "Not the horrible way you looked when you were old and unimportant. Feh!"
The obit page might look very different if we chose our own pictures, because I doubt we feel less important to ourselves just because we're older. Researcher Anderson says he asked his own aging pops, "Dad, if you ever pass away, would you want a picture of yourself at the height of your career or when you were a high-school baseball player?" Dad replied, "I'd rather have just a picture of myself now because that's who I am."
As I near 50 (and my picture on this column stays a pert 44), I wonder whether I'd prefer my obit picture to be the one you see here or the one that I will — someday, just possibly — replace it with. Or maybe I'd like my kin to use that really great photo from college. (We all have one.)
But maybe it makes sense to show the true ending to the story that an obit is: Born in year x, married or not, successful or not, survived by or not, and then — you close with a final picture. The one that shows you as the credits roll.
More and more, that's not how it's done. As if it's a shame to be old, even when you die. As if that's not the happiest ending around.
Lenore Skenazy is a columnist at Advertising Age. She is the founder of FreeRangeKids.com and the author of the upcoming book "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry."