Writing your own obituary has several advantages, doesn’t it?
By writing your own obituary, you spare your grieving family the burden of trying to write one within the few days between your death and funeral or memorial service. And, you also influence what you want people to remember about you.
Obituaries are perhaps the one newspaper item that tends to be kept through the ages. Obituaries are sometimes pasted inside the cover of the family Bible, or kept in a family scrapbook. They are a much beloved resource for persons doing genealogy research.
Genealogy researchers comb obituary notices looking for the usual – dates of birth and death and names of surviving and deceased relatives. But the exciting part is when something is added about the ancestor’s life. That excitement can be sparked by most any tidbit, such as information on their journey from their ancestral land to America.
The recent New York Times obituary on the death of Pauline Phillips – otherwise known as Dear Abby or Abigail Van Buren – captured the full life of Ms. Phillips – not just her statistics and survivor information. Any reader of that obituary was able to learn about Abby’s wit, sense of humor, family relationships, education, political bent, some ancestral history, and how and why she started writing an advice column.
To be sure, Pauline Phillips didn’t write her own obituary for The New York Times, and she was so famous for her Dear Abby advice column that she naturally attracted articles and multiple obituaries discussing her life.
Newspapers tend to partially prepare obituaries on the lives of their most renowned local residents long before the persons die. When I was a reporter at The Des Moines Register, the obits of “important persons” were stacked in a drawer of the city editor’s desk. All reporters knew where to find them in the event that one of the “important persons” died. With that advance preparation, it was much easier for the newspaper to present a full obituary/story about the “important person’s” life in the next issue of the newspaper.
Most of us aren’t as famous as Dear Abby and don’t receive an obituary written by a newspaper reporter. But we are “important” to our immediate circle of family, friends and future descendants. Consequently, when you write your own obituary, make certain that family members know where to find it.
When writing your obituary, focus on the life that you lived. What will people say
during testimonials at your memorial service, for example? Even such comments as: “he always had a piece of candy in his pocket for his grandkids”, provides insight into your character that will be later cherished by generations not yet born.
If you are known for your sense of humor, let it come through in your obituary. If you are known for a particular passion, show it.
My favorite example of a superbly written obituary is that of Bill Maurer of Des Moines, a former colleague. Bill’s obituary captures the reader right from the beginning with this introduction: “Bill Maurer’s goal was to live to be 113. He didn’t make it.”
His sense of humor jumps right out of those words, perhaps bringing a smile to the lips of his grieving friends and relatives.
Later, in the main text, the obituary states: “Bill proudly eschewed social media. Had no friends on Facebook, refused offers to be LinkedIn, didn’t even tweet. But he certainly did love people and valued his social life – especially with a good blend of scotch in hand. Bill loved sports, often watching the Hawks at Kinnick Stadium and the Iowa Cubs at Principal Park. Bill is grateful to God for his family,
the many friends and adventures he’s experienced, and a life well lived.”
Even the last paragraph addressing memorials added insight. It read: “His wish is that memorial contributions be made to Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity . . . to help build a home for a deserving family.”
Doesn’t the reader learn a lot about Bill from those few lines? His obituary wasn’t particularly long, and it included all the usual stuff about birth, death and surviving family members.
But someday, even Bill’s great-great-great granddaughter who never knew him will read Bill’s obituary and smile. And, chances are that she’ll feel connected to him in a special way.
Wouldn’t we all like that?
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