Writing Your Own Obituary Can Teach You How to Live
Hopefully, I’ll continue to update my own obituary for years to come—and learn something about myself along the way.
The Huntington HeraldThe New York TimesThe Washington PostChicago Sun-TimesThe Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of ObituariesSmoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
According to Crowther, there’s one important thing to remember when writing an obit: “Everybody has a story that’s worth telling. Some of the most wonderful and fascinating obituaries I’ve read in my career have been for people who weren’t famous and weren’t known by everybody but were so loved by someone in their life.” Love is what makes an obituary shine; it’s what gives the story life—pun intended.
John Pope is the author of the book Getting Off at Elysian Fields: Obituaries from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a collection of obituaries from the newspaper where he’s written them for the past forty-three years. His subjects—predominantly figures from New Orleans and Louisiana more broadly—have included famous chefs like Leah Chase and musical legends like Fats Domino. Pope says the task of an obituary writer is to find the “Rosebud moment,” a throwback to the classic film Citizen Kane. In the movie, the title character, played by Orson Welles, whispers “Rosebud” on his deathbed; a reporter is then tasked with discovering the meaning of the word. It turns out “Rosebud” refers to the name of the sled he used to play with as a child before he was taken away from his mother—his last moments of innocence and happiness.
Pope, who himself has written his own obituary twice now, says that if you don’t have the personality in the obituary, you’ve got nothing. “The first night of Passover, there’s a question, ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’” he said. “Well, how is this life different from all other lives? What makes this person stand out?” That interrogation—how one’s life is different from all other lives—can be difficult. With writing your own obituary, I learned that you don’t necessarily have the distance or dispassion to answer that question, at least at my age.
For now, I decided to include some character traits that others have pointed out to me, namely my curiosity and empathy: “She was deeply curious about the people and world around her. Outside of work, she was vocal about the things she cared about. When she was in her twenties and thirties, she was an abortion doula at Planned Parenthood clinics in Connecticut and New York and frequently attended protests on everything from racial justice to abortion rights.”
If you don’t know where to begin, it doesn’t hurt to ask your friends and family members. Seeing yourself through the eyes of others can be powerful. You can ask them to share some of your favorite memories, or what they love about you. Harrison Smith, obituary reporter for The Washington Post, told me that he’s always looking for telling quotes or anecdotes, something that captures the way a person was. “You don’t wanna write a résumé and you don’t wanna write a eulogy, right? So I think a great news obituary is a balanced look at a person’s life, for better or worse,” he said.
When thinking about balance, I also thought my wide range of interests should be reflected in the obituary: “Meg often joked that her hobby was collecting hobbies. Throughout her life, she tried everything from rock climbing and hiking to sewing and knitting.” Likewise, I wanted my obituary to communicate that I loved the people in my life but also that I had a sense of humor. And so I wrote: “She loved her family and friends more than anything in the world. Except maybe puns.”
When I started writing my own obituary, my intent was to make things easier for my family at the end of my life. I figured, in case I suddenly die, I will have crossed one thing off their checklist. But intent is different from impact. Writing my own obituary turned out to be an exercise in living.
Writing my own obituary turned out to be an exercise in living.
My obituary won’t be fully finished until I die. The bits and pieces sprinkled throughout this piece are just reflections of what I value in life today, in this moment. But what I value might change as the years pass. Unlike writing an obituary for someone else, writing your own obituary gives you a chance to audit your own life. It’s helped me take note of what I want more of—and less of—in my day-to-day life.
Obituaries, like our lives, are meant to evolve and change. I’ll have to revise my obituary as I continue to grow; the draft I have today might look radically different from the one I update thirty years from now. Hopefully, I’ll continue to update my obituary for years to come—and learn something about myself along the way.