Writing Your Own Obituary
We've always encouraged you to write or video your own eulogy, so why not write your own obit as well? Far from seeming narcissistic, undertaking a self-obituary can be a form of summation and of caregiving for those who may be in need of direction after we are gone.
The unexpected death of a treasured mentor brought home to me the benefits of composing one’s own obituary. At 80, my friend had a number of health problems, but it was still a surprise when he died suddenly, alone in his house. His adult children flew into town and grieved as they faced the daunting task of dealing with the so-called arrangements. One of the most difficult proved to be the obituary that had to be produced quickly for the local paper.
Their struggles brought back my own efforts — after I received a diagnosis of late-stage ovarian cancer — to vent. In a foul mood, I produced a bleak essay that I titled “Obitchuary.” In it, I quibbled with the corny sentences of a canned obit by expressing what is generally left out: the messiness and confusion, the baser motives and unfinished tasks behind glib pronouncements about achievements.
If ever there was a therapeutic writing project, this was that. But later, in a more sanguine state, I read the self-obit posted by the Seattle-based author Jane Lotter and reflected on how such a generous piece of writing must have helped ease the pain of her terminal illness and the subsequent grief of her relatives.
And now a different consideration bolsters my sense that this unique assignment is psychologically beneficial not only for the author and the author’s survivors. It may be crucial in getting the facts straight and in conveying the import of an existence as well as the values informing it. Far from seeming narcissistic, undertaking a self-obituary can be a form of summation and of caregiving for those who may be in need of direction after we are gone.
My friend’s offspring grasped the general outlines of their father’s trajectory as a university administrator, but not all the priorities that he might have wanted stressed. There were tricky personal issues as well: a divorced second wife should be mentioned, but how? I admired the draft they produced and agreed to enlist the help of my husband in revising it, even as I realized that my own children do not know where I would want donations in my name to be sent. Truth be told, neither do I.
If you want to do yourself and your survivors a favor by providing a blueprint of your obituary, start by making a list of the important dates, from your birth to milestones like graduations, weddings, military service, employments, descendants. Then fill in each item on the list with specific names and places. Consider adding details about other things that have shaped your life, whether they are memberships, hobbies, charities or adventures. You happily do not know your age at death or the date of dying or the cause, but you can simply leave your chronological memo to serve as the basis for an essay someone else will write.
Should you decide to brave prose, pick either the first- or the third-person voice. It may be easier to mine the honesty and authority of “I,” especially if you are composing a sort of autobiographical love letter to your survivors. “He” or “she” is more customary, but may raise a few eyebrows if your words are meant for public consumption. One colleague of mine wrote a fulsome obit of himself in the third person and when it became known that he was the author, it did seem a tad odd, to put it kindly.
You might want to start, as do the best obituaries, with a generalization about the overall significance of the life, then backtrack to the chronological sketch you have already produced, and conclude with funeral and memorial arrangements as well as a list of the closest survivors. There are online templates available.
When my husband, Don, and I set out to revise the obituary drafted by the daughters of my mentor, it mentioned his wry sense of humor. Since Don has served as the Indiana University necrologist (to attempt to ensure that there is a memorial resolution for each faculty member who dies), he understands that a quirky example works wonders and added one: Their father hosted convivial evenings, often engaging in games while authoritatively serving as a time-keeper … without the assistance of a watch.
This anecdote allowed Don to work in the name of our friend’s former second wife, who had co-hosted many festivities. I had benefited from their father’s sage counsel and therefore could add to the drafted account that he had worked tirelessly to support women on the faculty.
Helping to craft my friend’s obituary made me realize that Don and I need to compile chronologies for our survivors. The thought of transforming his into prose seems a bit excessive, he says. However, he offers to provide a list of approved adjectives — witty, sagacious, humble — that makes me laugh.
With amusement or pathos, engaging in any aspect of this sort of introspection serves as a memento mori: an exercise in remembering one’s own death undertaken less flamboyantly than in the practices inaugurated by ancient religious orders — sleeping in coffins or displaying skulls on the mantel — yet still highly effective. For people in midlife, remembering that we all have to die may redirect ongoing goals; for seniors, such a workout may remind us to view current problems within the context of what really matters most to us.
I am less mordantly cheered by the idea that the sketches my husband and I create can be updated like resumes — a new project! a new grandchild! — and by the advice of buoyant Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”: “Read your own obituary notice they say you live longer. Gives you second wind. New lease of life.”
This article was originally published by Susan Gubar in the New York Times
What do you think? will you be working on your own obit and update as your life fills with experiences?