I’ve been giving a lot of thought to obituaries lately. They frequently hold amazing insights — wistful, tragic, even witty.
“Hey listen to this,” my fiancé said as we pored over the paper at breakfast one Sunday. “This woman’s obit says she died peacefully at home after successfully beating mad cow disease, only to be eaten by a polar bear.”
“C’mon,” I said, “are you making this up?”
“It later says she extends gratitude to the Cancer Care Alliance and wants donations sent there in lieu of flowers,” he added.
“How cool is that? She must’ve written her own obit, don’t you think?” I said.
It dawned on me I’ve known people who penned their own obituaries. A renegade Oregon newspaperman made survivors smile when he included in his obituary that he turned down what most journalists wouldn’t reject, a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. It was easy to recognize the colorful curmudgeon in the details.
I read an obit recently that recommended casual attire for the memorial service. One suggested an acceptable celebration would include eating your own pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or lighting fireworks in the deceased’s honor.
There are litanies of what survivors will miss or remember about the dead, including everything from their bad jokes and overalls to their chocolate chip banana bread and ability to recite old Seinfeld episodes from memory.
I especially liked the obituary that recounted how the guy danced on the table with his grandchildren at his 88th birthday party. That grabbed my attention a lot more than the fact that he climbed mountains on every continent.
Honoring someone’s memory often calls for a charitable contribution. One moving obit I read recently requested one honor the deceased by aiding someone without seeking recognition.
While it might sound like a morbid way to make a living, there are journalists who make a career out of writing obituaries and love doing it. Oftentimes, especially for famous people past their prime, obits are crafted well in advance and put on ice until needed. So what I’m going to suggest isn’t really all that extraordinary.
How about writing your own obituary? It’ll be your death, so you can say most anything short of blatantly defaming someone. Otherwise, you have free rein.
You can make up the way you died like that woman who claimed she thwarted mad cow disease and later became a polar bear’s dinner. You can display religious fervor even if you haven’t had any since grade school. Hey, this is your life flashing before you, so make it a juicy read. Get it all down and don’t forget your survivors. Have another set of eyes — preferably somebody who knows you better than the kid at the fast-food drive-through window — read your first draft and suggest what you may have forgotten to include. That way somebody else knows you actually completed this exercise.
You might decide this is a stellar reason to throw a party where everybody sits around and reads their obits while they sip spiked punch and eat chips and dip. And if you have one of those Eureka, what-did-I-miss moments when you read your obit aloud? Maybe this is a good opportunity to make a few life changes in the time you have left on the planet.
Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early ‘90s, she worked for websites where she wrote sassy essays for women readers. More recently, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired this year, yet still enjoys freelancing.