Sunday, February 20, 2011

Write Your Own Obit

I received the charming e-mail below about a piece I wrote for the Courier Post a while back (I wrote for the Inquirer a bit later). They were even paying me $25 a column! Since I’ll be tied up on business this week, I thought I’d leave it to post again. ~Bob

"Hello.  I cut out this article from either The Philadelphia Inquirer or The Courier Post (Camden Co., NJ).  Clearly, it spoke to me, as I've never clipped and saved any other article.  I've had it for a few years, but I was wondering if you knew when it was published?  I'm going to share it with a friend tomorrow, and I'd love to be able to tell him. Thank you!" –Shana

Write your own obit
By Robert A. Hall
Camden County NJ Courier Post
December 14, 1999

You're dead, huh? Hey, I'm really sorry, but, not to sound callused, it had to happen someday. I mean, every living thing dies--me, you, millionaires and paupers, every majestic eagle and every slimy little slug. I know, I know, you just didn't expect it so soon. I hope you had a good life, sniffed a few blossoms, didn't leave too many loose ends. Probably a few people you wish you'd said "I love you" to more often, but that's life.
Listen, we've been really rushed. Could you do us a favor? Would you be willing to write your obituary for us? I know it's a bit of an imposition to ask the late departed to write the obit, but think of it as a great opportunity. I mean, you don't want some reporter who didn't know you grinding out the last entry in your permanent record, do you? Give it a go.
No, take as long as you want. You've got the time--an eternity of it--and this is the last thing living folks will know about you, so why not make it a good job? Your dear ones will carry a tattered copy for years.
You've got a draft already? That's great, let's give it a scan.
Well, it looks like you've got all the facts here: dates, birthplace, parents, education, job, clubs, awards, car accident, surviving family, final resting place. Gee, it seems kind of short, doesn't it? A few inches in a newspaper to cover all those years, triumphs, fears and failures. Pretty dry reading. To tell you the truth, I've never liked standard obits. They seem like such an empty attempt to capture a human life.
I'll tell you what. Let's take another shot at it, see if we can reveal the real you. What are the internal things people should know about you? How do you want to be remembered? We'll make this a full exploration of you as a person.
Let's put in your values. What did you believe in? Honesty? Courage? Kindness? Helping others? Tell us about your faith—what you believed and when you doubted. Put it all in, then let the readers know how well you lived up to your values. Give us some examples. Let us know where you failed as well, so we'll know you were human.
Next tell us who you loved. How'd you do at that? Did you care for them the way you wanted to? Did your actions demonstrate your love? If we asked them, would they say you lived your love? Is their pain now swathed in warm memories?
What else did you love? Sunsets? Bagpipes? Books? Dance? Flowers? Snakes? Old dogs? Pizza? Football? Let us know you through your passions.
What are you most proud of? Was it some great public accomplishment, or a small, unrecognized act of kindness or courage? That will tell us a lot about the person we've lost.
Don't leave out those things that shamed you. You wouldn't want us to think you were a saint, would you?
What kind of friend were you? Who counted on you? Were they disappointed? Or will they use you as a shining example of what friendship should be, the telling growing golden down the years?
Who were your enemies, and why? Don't be embarrassed--sometimes we should be proudest of our enemies. Especially if they aren't people, but great evils like bigotry, slavery, poverty, disease, tyranny, or ignorance. Did your loathing lead to action? Did you give battle nobly? Were you generous in victory, defiant in defeat?
Now it's coming along. Get all your emotions in there. Flesh out those dry facts with the real you. This is quite good. No, not too long at all--after all, you were a person.
From what I'm reading, you were a pretty decent person, too. I'm sorry I didn't know you, you're a loss to the world. This is a real record of a life lived. Some regrets, I see, dreams not realized, but a fine life none the less.

Makes me think, too. What if everyone sat down while they were still alive and wrote an obituary like this, one they'd like to leave behind, telling the world what kind of person they were? Then, if they'd spend their life trying to make that obituary read true, wouldn't the world benefit?
Too bad obituaries are for the dead--they'd be a great guide for the living.

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