Some Words to Live By
How writing your own obituary can change your life
By Jean Lang
Jade Walker says she first wrote her own obituary in college for a journalism assignment. At the same time, her mother sent her an obituary for a high school friend with whom she had attended drivers education class. The friend had fallen asleep at the wheel. In those days, there was no Facebook and other online social media to alert you more quickly.
Before that, death wasn’t real, says Walker, now 44, an overnight editor for The Huffington Post. “It wasn’t real until I saw it in print.” As Walker wrote her own obituary then, she thought, “I need to start living a life that is obit worthy.” Now, she updates her obit annually, usually around the time of her birthday. This year, she decided not to wait to rework it. Following the shooting death of five journalists in Maryland, she redid her obituary, making it more personal, less about accomplishments.
While the numbers of those writing obituaries professionally is on the decrease, those who practice the craft say it’s become more creative and fun, and has been opened, in some cases, with the assist of technology, to more people who are attempting it themselves, sometimes quite successfully. Some psychologists say the act of writing your obit can serve as a wake-up call and inspire people to make changes, to live more fully and intentionally.
“Think of your obituary as an aspirational guide for the rest of your life”
“Think of your obituary as an aspirational guide for the rest of your life,” writes David Evans, a counselor/mediator in an article for Psychology Today. Seeing what your obituary might look like can be life-altering.
It is believed that Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was inspired to devote his fortune to charity by establishing the Nobel prizes after reading his own obit that was mistakenly released upon a brother’s death. Nobel, a Swedish chemist and businessman, was disheartened to be labeled a “merchant of death” who had grown rich by developing new ways to kill.
Walker, a member of The Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) and author of The Blog of Death (now on hiatus), says she has written more than 1,600 obituaries, including one for evangelist Billy Graham and those for her cats, which she says helps her cope with the loss of her pets. She says strangers might find her passion for obits a bit weird, but not those who know this woman who drives a red Prius with “OBITLDY” on her New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” license plate.
Chicago Sun-Times obit writer Maureen O’Donnell, who recently served as president of SPOW, says obituaries and paid family death notices have become as beautiful and creative as ever.
She says there seems to be more openness and less fear about death, recalling an essay written by a dying woman in search of a new wife for her husband. ‘’It was beautifully written and she controlled the message, she was able to tell her own story in her words,’’ she says.
There are fewer obit writers, and fewer newspapers, so the number of people featured by professionals is relatively small. To assist those looking to write about themselves or their loved ones, some organizations like Legacy.com (an online obituary site which bills itself as “the place where the world pauses to embrace the power of a life well-lived”) offers ObitWriter to assist in composing obits. Users enter information onto a form and then receive a custom obit for review.
Walker also has suggestions for those looking to write their own obits. People could have a friend interview them and ask questions, but not just the basics of when and where they went to high school. They could also include such questions as “How do you like your eggs?” and “What book changed your life and why?” and maybe what were the happiest and saddest days of their lives. “Questions that do not have one word answers,” she says.
For those looking for more information on obits, there’s Marilyn Johnson’s book “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and The Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries” or Gail Rubin, self-described “Doyenne of Death” and author of “A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.” The titles attest to the sense of humor often interwoven with the matters of life and death.
“Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals and end-of-life issues won’t make you dead,” is a tagline on Rubin’s website.
O’Donnell also recommends “Obit. Life on a Deadline,” a documentary by Vanessa Gould which was a highlight of last year’s ObitCon, a biannual meeting of SPOW at which awards — “The Grimmys” — are given out for some of the more notable efforts by “folks who write about death for a living.” The film gives an up-close look at the obituary staff at The New York Times, and how they choose who to feature and how they go about quickly putting the obits together, often in a matter of hours. In it, the staffers are also asked if writing about death makes them think about mortality, including their own.
I think a lot of people at my age begin to consider mortality and how best to spend whatever time we have left.
“It makes me think about death every day,” answers Bruce Weber, a former theatre critic and cultural reporter. “That’s fairly profound. And it’s happening at a time, when, you know, I’m in my late fifties. I’m going to be 60 at the end of the year. It’s happening at a time in my life when I realize my life isn’t going to go on forever. I think a lot of people at my age begin to consider mortality and how best to spend whatever time we have left.”
Walker says even if people write their own obit and much of the material isn’t published, it will provide fodder, and perhaps comfort to their families. “This is the last word on your life, why not offer it,” Walker says. “What do you want your legacy to be, how do you want to be remembered?”
About the Writer
Jean Lang is a freelance writer and a former Boston-based Associated Press staffer. As a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., she had the privilege of writing several obituaries. Jean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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