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Are We Becoming Less Kind? Our Obituaries Seem to Think So

Getty Images / EyeEm / Bhawan Phaguwala

Certain phrases aren't appearing with the same frequency in obituaries anymore

“Please perform random acts of kindness & expressions of gratitude in my memory.”  

That’s how the obituary for Ida Grace Armor ends, with a request for others to honor her by being kind to each other.

Ida Grace seems to have had a particularly upbeat and sparkly personality. Just look at her photo. And “Have a great day,” she is quoted as saying, “it could very well be your last!”  

But when it comes to “kindness” in obituaries, Ida Grace is not alone.  

Legacy’s database includes thousands of obituaries — hundreds each year — asking for “random acts of kindness” in memory of those who died. And the number has been rising steadily: obituary mentions of “random acts of kindness” have increased every year for the past decade.  

Until now. Suddenly, in 2018, obituaries weren’t talking about “random acts of kindness” nearly as much. In fact, there were hundreds fewer mentions last year, the lowest number since 2014. 

Why the sudden decline? It could be simply a linguistic shift — perhaps the phrase “random acts of kindness” has run its course as a popular mantra. But it’s also possible we’re seeing more of a cultural shift in how people are thinking about kindness toward others. Are obituaries talking less about “random acts of kindness” because we are less interested in helping our fellow human beings? 

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Americans, as it turns out, generally are talking less about “kindness” and “love” and the like. In fact, “kindness” peaked in 1832 — and it’s been fading from cultural discourse ever since: 

Words like “love,” “patience,” and “faithfulness,” for example, as well as words like “humility,” “modesty,” and “kindness” have each declined in use by some 50 percent or more in the modern age... (The Christian Science Monitor) 

 

There have been occasional upturns in “kindness” over the past century and a half. The end of the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in United States history, got us one year of extra “kindness.” The brutality of World War I was followed by a few years of increased “kindness” (until Black Friday, and then kindness crashed like the stock market.) The overall trend is clear, though: “kindness” is declining. 

But looking at the chart, it’s also clear that “kindness” has made a significant comeback in recent years. Why the upturn? A lot of it has to do with “random acts of kindness.”  

The phrase “random acts of kindness” can be traced to the early 1980s. That’s when writer Anne Herbert (1950–2015) coined the phrase "practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty," a positive counterpoint to the "random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty" that seemed ever present in society. In 1993 she published the book “Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty” and her idea began to catch on. As soon as people began talking about “random acts of kindness,” “kindness” stopped its slide and began trending up again.  

 

Popular culture embraced the mindset of “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” but reshaped the phrase. Mentions of “random acts of kindness” soon surpassed Herbert’s original and increased significantly over the next decade and a half. At the turn of the century, the curve began to level off. But for a drop in 2004, “random acts of kindness” continued to increase year after year. 

What has happened since 2008 (the last year for which Google has data) is less clear, but obituaries may be able to help fill in the gap. In a sense, the “random acts of kindness” obituary trend of the past decade could be simply a continuation of the curve that began a few decades ago. People talking about “random acts of kindness” in obituaries is a reflection of the popularity of “random acts of kindness” in society. It’s possible that when the broader data catches up, we’ll see that the phrase “random acts of kindness” did in fact peak. 2017 was the top of the bell curve. Now we’re simply sliding down the other side of the bell. 

If “random acts of kindness” fades from discourse, will “kindness” as well? And what will become of us as human beings if we no longer talk about being kind? 

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Fortunately, one drop in “kindness” does not necessarily a trend make. Remember 2004? “Random acts of kindness” fell off significantly that year but started trending up again in 2005. So, what happened, and what can we learn from it? 

In 2004 a plane crashed off the coast of Egypt killing all on board; the president of Macedonia was killed; there was a coup in Haiti; Facebook began... and that was just January and February. Also making the news in 2004: the trial of Saddam Hussein, widespread terrorism and civil unrest around the world, contentious elections in the United States and elsewhere, the wartime death of pro football player Pat Tillman who gave up his NFL career after 9/11 to serve as an Army ranger. Meanwhile, on the linguistic front, words that entered our language in 2004 include e-waste, life hack, paywall, and waterboarding. 

Clearly, 2004 was not a banner year for kindness. Was it just a fluke that we were feeling less than neighborly? What changed to put kindness back on course in 2005? 

It’s hard to say what changed, but 2004 did end with an earth-shattering event felt the world over. On Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that struck Indonesia and surrounding areas. Nearly 230,000 people were killed. Perhaps the suddenness and enormity of the tragedy served as a wake-up call of sorts, reminding us that life is fleeting and that people should be more kind to one another. On the anniversary of the tsunami 10 years later, the Thai prime minister remarked that the tragedy “allowed us see the kindness and help that came from around the world that helped us pass through the difficult time.”  

Was last year like 2004? 2018 certainly had its share of violence and trauma: plane crashes, mass shootings, political and civil unrest, contentious elections, fractured governments. Will the “kindness” downturn continue in 2019? Will it take an act of God to turn it around? 

In any case, we can appreciate the recent example set by Frieda Gilbert Cohen. After she died Sept. 1, 2018, her family wrote an obituary that pays loving tribute to Frieda — and upholds the vital importance of kindness: 

“With all the discord presently in our country... Frieda and how she lived her life, should be a model for all of us. 

She would tell you of growing up poor, of her immigrant parents’ family members who died in concentration camps, of her own encounters with anti-Semitism and working as a woman in a blue-collar men's world. 

Despite these circumstances, Frieda always remained caring, outgoing and concerned for others. She was always appreciative of her good fortune, always has a kind word and treated everyone with the same respect, no matter their station in life, color or religion. 

Any donations you may consider should be a simple act of kindness.” 

Thank you to Frieda and her family for reminding us that, even in dismal times, one simple act of kindness goes a long way.  

Is there someone you miss whose memory should be honored? Here are some ways.