The Truth About Goodbyes

Nearly 13 years ago, I joined Legacy.com as a content screener.

To put it briefly, the job entailed checking through messages that people left in the Guest Book sections of online obituaries, ensuring their appropriateness. My friends and family members often asked what it was like to read about death all day. They were surprised when I told them that my job wasn’t really about death – it was about life.

You see, condolence messages most often focus on happy memories and fun times. People write to celebrate their loved ones’ lives, not to dwell on their deaths. Though I’ve since moved to another position and no longer screen condolences as part of my daily job, I reviewed more than 1 million condolence messages during my time as a content screener.

I wanted to show others that people often focus on the positive when writing condolences. To do so, I analyzed a random sample of Guest Book entries – 800,000 – and created a word cloud of the most frequently appearing words. “Wonderful,” “Great,” “Life,” “Memories …” these are the kinds of words people were using.

Those who know me know that I’m a bit of a math geek. So I also reviewed some data about what topics people mention most often in their entries.

Here’s what I found:

– 48 percent of condolences mention family.

– 35 percent focus on faith, God, angels and heaven.

– 30 percent of users are praying for the friends and family of the deceased.

– 30 percent talk about love.

– There are 10 times as many mentions of good as there are bad.

– Twice as many people use the word “life” compared to “death.”

– The formal-sounding word “condolence” is shared only half as often as a simple “I’m sorry.”

I think these numbers illustrate what the Guest Book is all about. People write in it on the occasion of a death, but the reason they’re writing is to remember a life. When we remember a life, we want to recall our favorite times, the happy things, the memories that give us joy – that’s what helps us get over the sadness of a loss. And that’s why people who share condolences in the Guest Book are five times more likely to mention laughter and smiles than crying and tears.

Katie Falzone joined Legacy.com in 2002 as a content screener and now serves as Director of Operations, overseeing the content screening and support teams. What she appreciates most about Legacy.com is that it provides people a place to come together to support each other while honoring and celebrating the lives of those who matter most to them.

Originally published January 2015