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Image courtesy of Aqua Mechanical, Orem, Utah. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Steaming waffles. Dana Brown Safari coffee. Zest soap. Petunias. Cool, wet grass. Firewood. Those are some of the scents and smells I associate with my grandmother. If I were writing her obituary, I’d want to include as much of that sensory detail as possible. But how to describe the smell of coffee?

Why We Stink at Describing Smells

In a new study, researchers conclude that people in most human societies have trouble describing smells because we don’t need to in order to survive. In other words, we have trouble categorizing and expressing olfactory information because there’s no evolutionary benefit to doing so. No question we’re lousy at it. Take these examples, in which the authors of otherwise delightful obituaries have struggled to describe smells:

  • Known for always wearing pajamas and “smelling like grandma”, you could find Pam reading one of her favorite authors (which there were many), gambling with her fake millions on her laptop, or playing with her great grandbabies when she could. Pamela J. Beechum (1947–2018)

We’re better at describing what we see than what we smell, says Asifa Majid, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, who led the study. Even sounds are easier for us to put into words. Consider the subtle difference between a tap and a clink, or a thump and a bang. We’re pretty good at describing tactile input, too—how things feel (cushiony, grainy, rubbery, fibrous, wooly, nappy, velvety, sticky, crusty, pliable, etc.).

Wake up and smell the coffee! My addiction to the stuff started when I was in high school. Classes began at 7:20 a.m.

I honestly can’t think of any way describe the smell of coffee other to specify what kind of coffee we’re talking: its brand (Folger’s, Dana Brown), the roasting or brewing method (Keurig, slow roasted, French press, percolated) or some other detail (a cup of weak, scorched airline “coffee,” perhaps):

But in an obituary, that’s enough. There’s no need to describe the smell itself.

How Obituary Writers Can Describe Smells

Consider these wonderful examples in which folks have animated their loved ones’ stories by describing the scents associated with them:

  • [Over time he came] to appreciate the delights of rural Berks County existence (funnel cake and the smell of livestock under the lights at the Olney fair; the less-than-slick music streaming from the bandshell: he loved all of it.) —Jason Adlestein (~1967–2017)
  • The a-frame was just a shell back then….no windows….only a plywood door….and the cold air was always filled with the smell of fresh cut saw dust and cigar smoke….a bold cologne in my opinion. If we could find a way to bottle this scent, I’m sure it would sell by the case at Cabela’s or Bass Pro! David Joseph Cotes (?–2012)
  • Sarge maintained that Colorado pretty much had it over any spot in the world. Returning to Long Beach from one of the annual summer vacation trips back to visit his folks, he brought back a large glass jar with a screw-top lid. He said it was full of clean Colorado air, and every so often he would take it off the fireplace mantel and grab a whiff of it, but careful not to take too much so he could savor it another day. Robert K. “Sarge” Bentley (1917–2011)

That last example is my favorite. It illustrates my point perfectly. After reading that paragraph, we’d be hard pressed to describe the scent of the air in that jar. But boy, did we learn a lot about Mr. Bentley: He was close to his family. He loved the outdoors and cared about the environment. And he was endearingly idealistic and goofy.

So as you write, consider the smells you associate with your obituee (even if it’s yourself). Be as detailed as you can about where the smells come from. Don’t just tell us that your obituee’s kitchen smelled good, or even that it smelled like pies and cakes. Be specific, like this:

 Instead of telling us that your obituee always smelled good, or even that he always smelled like cologne, be specific, like this:

  • Walking through [his] house, one was sure to catch a whiff of his Magic Shave, as he was preparing to go through his full grooming regiment [sic] so he could adorn in the finest threads money could buy. Jordan O. Williams (1941–2016)

And instead of telling us that the air smelled fresh, or even that it smelled of flowers, be specific, like this:

  • Despite his many successes, Dad was happiest walking through his pastures at twilight during the early summer as the smell of Mom’s lilacs wafted through the air and a new crop of calves bounced around him. Alfred Hermann Budweth (1929–2014)

OK, you get the idea. Now that you’ve caught the scent, try it yourself. And please share your results. I’d love to see what you come up with.