“Some say he’s doing the obituary mambo…” – Tom Waits
“It’s never too early to start beefing up your obituary.” – The Most Interesting Man in the World
There is always an understory to an obituary. I have read and written enough obituaries, including my own, to know what’s being said between the lines. Alarmingly frequently people succumb to short or long battles with cancer or something equally thorough in heroic and/or valiant ways. If not fully stated in the story, the disease becomes explicit in the donations section. Not much mystery there.
Vivacious is a drunk as is his door was always open, so is a character. Fun-loving bachelor and he never married are usually gay; free spirit is unemployable, utterly carefree is utterly senile. Death has its own clichés: passed, passed on, passed away, passed over, passing, met his/her maker, crossed over, departed, lost, ad infinitum.
Finding the hidden meanings in obituary euphemisms can tell the story of an unclear death. Tragically usually denotes an accident. Suddenly indicates suicide more often than not. Unexpectedly cuts closer to suicide. I have even seen by his own hand followed by a short bitter obit. Taken by the Lord is wide open to interpretation as is Ascended.
Since Linda’s death, I have discovered several of life’s loose ends, including writing my own obituary. Very few people write their own obituaries, usually leaving the difficult task to close family members under stress. I think it would be a loving gesture on anyone’s part at any time of life to write his or her own obituary. Think how much stress you’ll relieve when its time comes. You’ll be even more popular!
There are no children to write my obit, that’s why I did it myself. Plus I’m a writer. I enjoyed it. I recommend it as a thought-provoking exercise in self-awareness. I reflected on what was important to me in my life, what I wanted people to remember about me, my family and my accomplishments. I often tweak it. I chose the picture I want to accompany my obituary in the paper, where to run it, who to contact to get it in the right papers.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written my own obituary. In the late 1960s I attended Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now University) in downtown Toronto to study radio announcing in a course called Radio & Televisions Arts. The curriculum included a writing class that I was keen to attend. The first day the writing instructor, whose name I have regrettably forgotten, walked in and told a room full of fresh faced kids, including this 19 year old from a little prairie town, that we were all going to die today and needed to write our own obituaries. He gave us very brief guidelines: write it all in past tense, say what you want people to remember about you, a short list of life data to include. We spent the rest of the sombre class quietly pondering our lives and scribbling out our death notices.
At 60 there’s plenty of source material to draw from but at 19, there isn’t a huge pool of fact to access. We were told not to embellish, be truthful. Many were flummoxed, a few, like myself, dived in trying not to flourish too much. One girl started to cry thinking about being dead. She got a pass on the obit. With his introductory bit of drama and flair, the instructor got my attention and I learned a great deal about the craft from him that year.
An obituary is a person’s final and personal contact with the world. This list offers suggestions on what to include, all are optional. The list is not exhaustive. I provide it as a public service.
- Intro including date and place of death
- Predeceased by
- Leaves to mourn
- Kind of person she/he was
- Parent’s names incl. mother’s maiden name
- Birth date and place
- Upbringing location and schooling
- Youthful accomplishments
- Further education
- Marriage date, to whom
- Offspring in birth order
- Work life
- Hobbies, sports, pets, achievements, other activities, what gave her/him pleasure
- Spouse death
- Life since then
- Service date time and place
- Where buried
- Funeral home in charge
Do you have a last will and testament? Check out my post.