By Alan Gelb
Why, one might ask, would anyone want to write his or her own obituary? Out of sheer narcissism? Utter morbidity? An insatiable desire to control things? Any or all of those motivations may be at work, but, to put a more positive spin on things, the act of writing one’s own obituary can also be a thought-provoking, rewarding and deeply clarifying experience.
What’s the point of an obituary anyway? Ostensibly, it is to be noticed. Its origins trace back to 18th century London, when the fashionable Gentleman’s Magazine began running death notices that were, in fact, short biographies. Today, the newspaper obituary in major newspapers is reserved for major or relatively major figures while those who can pay the whopping sticker price may opt for the lengthy “obituaries” that can be purchased in the death notices section.
Telling Your Own Life Story
There is no reason, however, why a person cannot write his or her own obituary and disseminate it according to whatever plan that person sets up. With social media and email and all the other ubiquitous and free outlets that are available today, your obituary carefully crafted by you can tell others who you are and how you have lived when the appointed time arrives.
1. Resolve. Mortality is scary, and historically, we have been taught to avoid the prospect altogether. Recent books like Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal and social phenomena like death cafés and “Death Over Dinner,” in which strangers come together to discuss their end-of-life plans, have gone a long way toward ameliorating that taboo. Writing your own obituary allows you to consider your own mortality with resolve, thereby doing some of the work involved in the demanding business of confronting life’s third act.
2. Perspective. Structured life review exercises, like memoir writing, journaling and the giving of oral histories, help immeasurably in making meaning of life in the end run. Not everyone is interested in such time-consuming forms of life review, however, and so the obituary — brief and to the point — is a very accessible way of achieving a highly concentrated life review. You may well come away surprised to see how complete and complex your life looks on paper.
3. Accuracy. Wikipedia has a lengthy list of notable people who have suffered the indignity of having obituaries written about them prematurely. Alfred Nobel allegedly founded the Nobel Prize in an effort to rehabilitate his reputation after a premature obituary called him — the inventor of dynamite — a “merchant of death.” Civil rights pioneer Marcus Garvey was recovering from a stroke when he read his premature obituary that described him as “broke, alone and unpopular,” thus precipitating, perhaps apocryphally, a second fatal stroke from shock. Beyond premature obituaries, there are, of course, rampant errors in terms of birth dates, career accomplishments, marital status and other points of information. Wouldn’t you like to set the record straight?
4. Acceptance. Even if you had set out to be a great novelist or a famous aviator or a world explorer and your dreams did not pan out, there may still be great solace in writing an obituary in which you emphasize the very real accomplishments that you have attained. Were you a great mother or a great father or a great spouse or someone’s devoted child? That counts for a great deal. So write your obituary in a way that makes you feel good about who you are and who you have been.
5. Connection. Your obituary can become a precious gift for those in your life who you leave behind. It can help them to know you better and to understand you better. And, in so doing, they can understand themselves better.
How to Write Your Obituary
Writing your own obituary is a challenging assignment. As with any piece of writing, you want to avoid the cliché — “I have always tried to help others and have aimed to make the world a better place” — and aim instead for real, tangible, vivid detail. Writing your own obituary can be a truly creative exercise that can include humor, narrative twists and turns, and more. In fact, a great obituary can read like a short novel. (See Margalit Fox’s obituary of Leslie Buck, the man who created the Greek-patterned paper cup found in New York diners.) And once you have your obituary under your belt, you might try writing your own eulogy, another highly concentrated but somewhat more expansive account of who you are and how you have lived.
In the words of Napoleon Hill, whose 1937 book Think and Grow Rich practically started the genre of self-help literature, “It takes half your life before you discover that life is a do-it-yourself project.”