Learning from 2,000 obituaries

Death is fascinating – for one it is inevitable and second, we don’t know what’s beyond it. I have already written few articles here on My Zen Path about death, such as Candy Chang’s powerful Before I die, Anita Moorjani’s insights from her near-death experience Dying to be me, David Brooks’ contemplation of eulogy in Life beyond résumé, and wisdom drawn from social study at Harvard Medical School conducted for 75+ years – What matters at the end? Here I am again, this time with a short, funny but introspective TED talk by Lux Narayan – What I learned from 2,000 obituaries.

Lakshmanan aka Lux Narayan runs a social media intelligence company that helps digital marketers, social media analysts, and content creators by analyzing and creating contents and campaigns. He leads a team of 70 people distributed across the company’s operations in Chennai and New York City.

In this TED talk he mentions his rather unusual habit of reading obituaries for his breakfast, and more interestingly the kind of analysis he has done with 2000 odd obituaries.

We looked at the data. 2,000 editorial, non-paid obituaries over a 20-month period between 2015 and 2016. What did these 2,000 deaths — rather, lives — teach us?

Well, first we looked at words. This here is an obituary headline. This one is of the amazing Lee Kuan Yew. If you remove the beginning and the end, you’re left with a beautifully worded descriptor that tries to, in just a few words, capture an achievement or a lifetime. Just looking at these is fascinating.

I was intrigued that essence of life can be captured so succinctly – how we do our bit in the world and how world perceives it. Narayan used natural Language Processing (NLP) to analyze these obituaries and they revealed something interesting. This is how he puts it –

Our curiosity was in overdrive, and we desired to analyze more than just a descriptor. So, we ingested the entire first paragraph of all 2,000 obituaries, but we did this separately for two groups of people: people that are famous and people that are not famous. Famous people — Prince, Ali, Zaha Hadid — people who are not famous are people like Jocelyn Cooper, Reverend Curry or Lorna Kelly. I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard of most of their names. Amazing people, fantastic achievements, but they’re not famous. So what if we analyze these two groups separately — the famous and the non-famous? What might that tell us?

Watch here to know –


The featured images:

The featured image that I have used here is a screenshot from the TED talk by Lux Narayan – I like the way word cloud from obituaries look like.