Write your own obit and you’ll be glad you did

Passing Dreams



You know how all the presidential candidates promise that they’ll do this, that and the other thing in their first 100 days in office?

That’s kind of the way it is in retirement.

I have a couple lists of things that could or should or need to be done in retirement, things that I was always “too busy” to get done while a working stiff.

One of the lists is in writing, with check boxes by each one to mark off when the task is complete. The other is a mental list. You can guess which list is mine and which is my wife’s.

Now 54 days into retirement, I feel confident that it’s fair to boast that I’m checking the boxes faster than any president has done with a 100-day promise. The written list contains about 90 percent check marks. The mental list is dwindling fast too, as far as I can remember.

Last week I checked an unusual task off the list – writing my obituary. It’s not that I’m planning to use it any time soon, even though few of us can predict the publication date of our obits. Still, it’s an interesting exercise that I highly recommend.

I’ve written hundreds of obits over the course of 50 years in the newspaper business. Some were routine, some following tragic deaths, some about family members, some chronicling the lives of community pillars, most describing lives well-lived.

But I’ve never written my own.

Once you get past the idea that you’ll be dead when it’s published, it’s an interesting exercise. Even fun.

The process is similar to paging through old picture albums. It focuses your mind’s eye on those things that have stood out as important or noteworthy on the day-to-day pages of your personal history book. Just as you linger when you come across certain images in a photo album, you pause to reflect on certain chapters of your history, and you choose the ones that you see as most impactful.

Repeat – you choose the ones YOU see as impactful, rather than leaving it to one of your descendants to decide what was or wasn’t a big deal for you.

For me, it was a big deal that I was privileged to be the third generation operator of a newspaper business in a small North Dakota town, a family business that for just shy of 100 years breathed life into a community by describing its blemishes and its beauties; by shedding tears of sorrow and tears of joy; by celebrating milestones of life and death.

If, some day, you have a chance to read what I wrote in my epitaph, you’ll see that it doesn’t say that I met and married the love of my life, though I did. It doesn’t say that I died surrounded by a loving family, though there’s a place to insert how I died. It doesn’t say that I was loved and revered by everyone I ever met, because, well, truth is important.

It doesn’t say those thing because as I wrote, I referred back to notes I’d kept from times when I’d had occasion to advise others on how to write an obit. Some guiding principles: don’t be cliché; don’t over embellish; do be personal and creative.

A favorite piece of advice from those notes: an obit doesn’t need to read like an obit. The “what” is important, but so is the “how,” and especially the “why.” It’s not just what you did, but how you felt about it.

And be personal, remembering that this is the archive of your life. A perfect illustration comes from my own father’s obit, which he wrote: “He loved sports, and in nearly 50 years of faithful jogging he boasted enough miles to circle the earth more than three times.”

Another example culled from my notes: “Even though Art had the hands of a farmer, he had the finesse to fiddle a song that would fill a room with joy and get everyone’s foot a-tapping.” That’s personal.

Even a bit of irreverence can provide a clear picture of your true character, as demonstrated by the obit written by a former colleague and published after his death a couple of years back: “He did not die after a heroic struggle with some ailment like terminal hangnail or chronic dandruff, but from doing too many things that he shouldn’t have done too often and for too long despite numerous warnings from members of the medical community. As an erstwhile colleague once said of him: “he’s not the sort of man to say ‘hold the anchovies.”’

I’m not quite so creative, but I hope that the 750 words I’ve written tell readers who I was, what I did, what was important to me and how I felt about it.

I hope that it gives some respite and relief to family members tasked with attending to the affairs necessary to put a wrap on my life on earth.

Mostly, I hope that it’s a while before anyone reads it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.