When You Ask AI to Write an Obituary
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This post is part of Lifehacker’s “Living With AI” series: We investigate the current state of AI, walk through how it can be useful (and how it can’t), and evaluate where this revolutionary tech is heading next. Read more here.
Writing an obituary for a loved one can be an arduous, emotionally draining task, and it’s generally thrust upon us when we are at one life’s lowest points, and least equipped to handle the burden. So you’d be forgiven for making like a lazy college student and turning to artificial intelligence to help you out, right? No. No you would not. If ghosts are real (they aren’t, probably), using an AI to write an obituary will definitely get you haunted.
Because while it might seem like a good idea to use artificial intelligence to take that one thing off your plate, doing so is actually a huge cop-out. Despite this fact, funeral home websites all over the country are now offering AI obituary-writing services, but you really shouldn’t use them. Not only is AI prone to getting details wrong or just making things up, an obituary written by a robot is a cold and careless legacy to leave as the last record of a person’s life—your loved one deserves better (I assume).
The factual details of AI-written obituaries are likely to be wrong
Screenshot: Joel Cunningham
I’ve been playing around with the Tribute AI obituary writing tool, which the company promises will “create a meaningful obituary in seconds,” for several hours, and I have come to the conclusion that it will not.
The experience of using it is bizarre. Leaving aside the surreal request to describe your loved one in three words—choosing from a pre-populated menu of adjectives like “wise,” “generous,” and “courageous”—and the ability to set your desired tone (traditional, playful, religious, inspirational) and “creativity level” (using a slider), the program has no problem just plain making things up.
I entered prompts for an imaginary decedent named “Tony,” an adventurous bus driver. In the obituary, the AI described Tony as a world traveler and mountain climber, details I did not provide. This might make sense from an AI perspective—many adventurous people are world travelers—but you don’t want an obituary filed with lies. Positive exaggerations are expected, but outright lies are not acceptable.
The emotional details will definitely be wrong
Describing the best aspects of person in an obituary while leaving out the dirty laundry is standard practice, but because they’re written by people, you can usually read between the lines to divine what the deceased was really like—a “family man” whose obituary is a few barebones biographical facts was probably not the best father, whereas a greatly beloved person is likely to have an obituary full of personal observations and expressions of grief (even if they’re cliches). AI obliterates this distinction. It doesn’t know the dead (or anyone) so will spit out flowery “we’ll all miss them so much” prose all day, but the impression left will be the same for Hitler as for a saint.
AI reduces everyone to the same level—it builds up people who don’t deserve it, belittles those who do, and forces the complexities of a human life into a one-size-fits-all template. It’s dehumanizing.
To illustrate the point, I described an awful (fictional) person into a funeral home’s’ AI app. I gave “John Smith” no redeeming qualities or traits, so anything positive below is an AI invention. Here’s some of what it came up:
John’s time at high school was one of self-discovery and growth. Voted “most hated,” John embraced this title with a mix of humor and resilience, turning it into a catalyst for self-reflection. With the guidance of mentors and friends, he eventually transformed his spirited demeanor into a determined quest for self-improvement.
Following high school, John embarked on a career as a telemarketer. It is in this position that he honed his distinctive communication style, making lasting connections with clients, colleagues, and friends alike. John’s work history also includes his involvement in associations that were an expression of his passion for community engagement. As the Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan, a role bestowed upon him, he further explored his passion for community involvement and making connections with others.
John was a man who never shied away from expressing his dissatisfaction with the world, which was evident through his penchant for complaining about ‘literally everything.’ His ability to find fault in the most mundane aspects of life was an indelible part of his personality. His friends and family would often recall these enthusiastic tales of displeasure with great fondness and nostalgia.
People will be able to tell
AI writing, as it exists in 2023, is easily identifiable. Despite attempts to vary its style, AI writing has a certain mid-ness that’s hard to describe exactly, but which becomes more obvious the more you are exposed to it. While the obituary, as a form, is already rife with cliches, they’re comfortingly human cliches—not machine-made ones—and people will know the difference.
This is especially true depending one the tone you choose for your AI obit. Selecting “playful” delivered shockingly inappropriate results:
“[The deceased’s] life was a beautiful and hilarious journey that ended…[when] she passed away from complications related to dementia.”
A “poetic” tone proved equally horrifying:
“Though complications from dementia, took her from our side, Her memory will live on, a love that won’t subside.”
Everyone will know what you did. Your cousins at the funeral will probably be too polite to call you out on it, but you’ll forever be thought of as “the person who used AI to write an obituary for their own mother.” You don’t want that kind of baggage.
Is this what your loved one would want?
I’m not on board with the belief that the dead are looking down on us from a cloud and judging what we do, so I don’t take the imagined wishes of people who are gone too seriously. So I’ll just say this: If there is some kind of afterlife, there is no way that your mother-in-law would approve of an AI-generated obituary. You can use the “It’s what they would have wanted” excuse in a lot of situations (“Yes, I’m spending Nana’s life savings on a jet-ski. It’s what she would have wanted!”) But not this one.
Obituaries aren’t for the dead. They’re for you
In the midst of funeral planning, estate settling, and managing your grief, an assignment to write an essay might seem like an unfair burden, but like most weird rituals associated with death, there’s a reason we keep doing it.
The writing process forces you to think about the impact your loved one had in your life and the lives of everyone around them. Writing an obituary lets you honor the deceased by telling their story, while giving you a way to express your own grief and start coping with the reality of their absence from your life. Foisting this task off on an AI makes that process meaningless.
Even writing a hagiography of an obituary is a useful endeavor. To leave out the unfortunate and unflattering details, you have to think about them first, and consider what information your loved one would want the world to know, so you can give them a final gift of positive PR—or really stick it to them, if you prefer.
Even not writing an obituary, or letter the funeral home send out the bare bones details, is preferable to a robot eulogy. At least that says either “we were too overcome with grief to do this” or “we just don’t care enough.” Both are valid responses to a death, and something to think about later on. “Why was I so lacking in courage that I couldn’t write 500 words about my beloved aunt Marge?” you might ask yourself. An AI obituary says nothing at all, and only allows you to create the illusion that you gave a shit. In the end, it’s just a way to dodge responsibility.
The only acceptable way to use AI to write an obituary
I don’t think you should use AI to write an obituary at all, but if you must, consider it a means of organization or as a tool for sparking your creativity, as opposed to a source of creativity. Instead of asking an obituary generator to spit out a finished product, head over to ChatGPT and ask it to write the mere outline of an obituary for you.
You’ll end up with a prompt like this:
A. Announcement of the passing
B. Brief mention of the individual’s profession as a bus driver
C. Highlighting the unique aspect of their life—mountain climbing as a hobby
II. Early Life and Education
A. Background information about the individual’s upbringing and family
B. Education and any relevant achievements or interests during this time
You can then fill in the blanks with relevant details and personal sentiments instead of canned text crafted by a soulless robot.
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