What secrets are we keeping today that we'll be comfortable with sharing in obituaries 100 years from now?

It’s been more than 10 years since Frank Warren was inspired in a dream to create PostSecret, the website that encourages us to share secrets by writing them on postcards and mailing them to him. Each Sunday, he posts a selection of the secrets he’s received. Some are funny or ironic; others are cathartic, devastating, tear-inducing. Many deal with death – memories of loved ones, suicidal thoughts, secrets revealed in the wake of a loss. This one appeared in the “Classic Secrets” section of PostSecret just last week:

Those death-related messages, revealing the spectrum of emotions that accompany loss, can feel like the intimate yet anonymous postscript to an obituary. 

That congruity isn’t lost on Warren. At a recent PostSecret Live event, he discussed the ways secrets and obituaries can intertwine. “If you look at the history of obituaries, you can see how they’ve changed over time,” he said. “We’ve become more comfortable talking about certain issues of end-of-life today that we wouldn’t mention at all 100 years ago, or we’d talk about differently 50 years ago. And I still think we’re on a continuum. 100 years from now, we’ll be saying things in our obituaries and those of our loved ones that no one would think about saying today.”

What secrets are we keeping today that we’ll be comfortable with sharing in obituaries 100 years from now? Warren can’t say for sure, but he notes, “60 years ago, when women had breast cancer, that was shameful. They would keep it a secret. There were no parades. There were no ribbons. So that’s an example of a part of death in the past that was censored, that was secret, that today we’re more open with.”

The effect of this new openness in obituaries has been huge, reaching far beyond the obituary pages of local newspapers. When we’re honest about the way a loved one has died – whether from breast cancer, suicide, or any other once-taboo cause – we can provide support and understanding to the living. An obituary that’s forthright about suicide, for instance, might encourage a reader who’s secretly struggling with depression to break their silence and seek help. By talking about suicide, Warren believes, “We can recognize it and deal with it openly and honestly in a healthy way, and be there more for individuals, especially young people, who might feel alone and isolated and without hope.” It’s a way that we can turn the obituary – once just a basic-facts document – into a powerful force for change and healing.

There’s another benefit to writing a candid obituary for a loved one, Warren says – the sort of obituary that celebrates the real person, warts and all. “The fuller a portrait we can paint of those who’ve passed, the more we can appreciate who they really, truly were and celebrate their life as it actually was.”

In addition to remembering loved ones by writing their obituaries, many people find comfort in talking directly to the deceased. This might take place at the cemetery, or it may be done in writing – in a journal, online in the Guest Book of an obituary or even on a PostSecret postcard. Warren receives plenty of secrets, such as the above example, addressed directly to a deceased person. He sees this secret-sharing as a helpful facet of mourning: “I think it can be a healthy first step in reconciling with exactly how you’re feeling about [the death], and maybe putting yourself on that journey to how to get through it.”

What secrets will be revealed in Warren’s own obituary? We asked how he’d like to be remembered, knowing that the creator of PostSecret probably doesn’t have many unrevealed secrets of his own. His obituary, he says, needs just four simple words: “He earned a soul.”