Back in the day, I wrote obituaries at a daily newspaper in the Midwest. I loved it — it was a chance to tell someone’s story in full. Yes, the impetus was a sad one. (The deceased was deceased, after all.) But it was often a chance to tell the tale of someone’s heroic achievements and accomplishments, and unlike most reported stories, sources were often more than eager to share their anecdotes and memories with me.
Still, I couldn’t help but think it was a shame that the subjects of the obituaries wouldn’t get to read all the great things being said about them. And with the rare exception of someone who wrote a memoir or journaled extensively (and publicly), the subjects’ own voices were often sorely lacking.
There’s a corrective to that, and it’s something that every one of us can take, even if our lives might fall short of earning, say, a lengthy front-page obit in The New York Times. It’s writing our own obituary, and it’s something that has become increasingly popular in our modern era. (Indeed, many daily papers only run paid obituaries, which are often rote lists of marriages and offspring, written by a relative in the midst of all the other burdens of arranging a funeral and handling all the other end-of-life tasks.)
For some, writing their own obituary is spurned by a terminal diagnosis. Jane Catherine Lotter’s self-penned obituary, a thoroughly honest and deeply moving piece of writing published recently in the New York Times, written after a diagnosis of endometrial cancer, has deservedly become a popular example. Even if you can’t match Lotter’s grace and wit—and few writers can—you should consider putting pen to paper and recording the story of your life. Here are a few reasons why it’s helpful, especially if you’re planning to be around for a long time.
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It’s fun! Or at least therapeutic
In a sense, we all received a terminal diagnosis the day we were born. Less philosophically, if you have received a literal terminal diagnosis, doctors often recommend writing one’s obituary as a way of coping with a painful situation. (Even if that painful situation is merely life itself.)
Whatever your situation, it can be helpful to step back and consider your life from this perspective. What’s truly important will become apparent, and what’s less so will fade away. (And what constitutes those things might surprise you.) And if the inherent morbidity of the exercise intimidates you, frame it another way: Imagine a local journalist wants to profile you for an upcoming story, and you’re giving her the important details from your own point of view.
This isn’t Ulysses or The Waste Land,—you’re just trying to get down a narrative of your life’s most important moments and intel. Where you were born. What your parents did. Your career and your hobbies. If you’re married or have kids, the details around that. If you can, add in a few salient anecdotes that illustrate your values, or demonstrate your personality. (Don’t just say you loved to laugh, for example—tell a story of something specific that cracked you up, and maybe still makes you giggle to this day.)
Even if you don’t like to write, you could find someone you trust and ask them to help you, or even just dictate your life story to a friend and let him or her write a draft. (You’d be surprised how willing people will be to help you. And hey, even most celebrities enlist a ghostwriter to help them write their autobiographies.) The low-touch way: Just compile a list of important dates, memories, and events. And if you have to, do what we pros do, and set a deadline (pun only partially intended) to make sure it gets completed.
You get to tell your own story
Mark Twain famously (supposedly) said “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated” after his obit began appearing in papers—while he was still alive. Alfred Nobel supposedly created his titular prize after a premature obit called him a “merchant of death.” (He invented dynamite, among other things.) There are two takeaways here:
- 19th-century newspapers had a bad habit of publishing obituaries for people who were still alive.
- Obituaries sometimes contain false or inaccurate information, and this is true whether you’re a legendary author or scientist, or just a mere mortal. (Think of how, at a family reunion, Uncle Morty and Cousin Sally contradict and correct each other when swapping stories from way back when…)
This is a way to ensure your story is told as it happened, or at least how you remember it, or at least how you choose to remember it, or want other people to remember it. You’ll also have the chance to emphasize what (and who) really mattered to you. Maybe your high school history teacher revolutionized the way you saw the world, but you never told your children about her. This is your opportunity to address that and so much else.
You get to tell people what they mean to you
That time on vacation when your daughter’s face lit up while taking a gondola ride over an epic gorge. Those career-altering words of wisdom from a mentor. That childhood pen pal whose letters always brightened your week. These little things will be all but forgotten if you don’t mention them here. Without being too sentimental, this is your chance to mention them in case you don’t get to do so in person. (And actually, if there’s a time to err on the side of sentimentality, this is it.)
You can prime yourself for an amazing second act
Remember our friend Mr. Nobel from earlier? It turns out another famous man of science, Dr. Frasier Crane (of Frasier fame) had a similar experience after a sitcom-y mix-up at a hospital. Instead of focusing on what was in the obituary — can’t exactly argue with “lovably pompous” — Frasier focuses on what’s missing: The novel he was going to write. The public office he was going to hold. The Freud he planned to translate.
But the best part — Frasier realized he wasn’t dead. There was still time. This is a chance to examine your life, and see where it perhaps has fallen short, and address those shortcomings while you still can. Maybe you share Frasier’s aspirations to write a novel or run for office. Maybe you have other aspirations of your own. Regardless, it’s always good to remember you can change your life, and your legacy, at this very minute if you so choose.
Just get started and see what comes up
As for how to do it, it’s simple. Open up a file, pull out a memo pad, and start. If you want, you can inform your beneficiaries as to where it is and where to find it—or better yet, add the exact location to your will, and print out a hard copy to put in a safe or a safety deposit box. And then tell the (varnished or unvarnished) story of your life. Or you can just write it for yourself, as an exercise to focus on who you are now and who you’d like to be in the future. Use one of the many online templates if you have to. Revise it as often as needed, and remember: Your obit, like your life itself, is never finished until it’s finished.
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.