Want to Have the Last Word? Write Your Own Obituary

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2012 12:00

With muse Murphy

I’m having trouble getting started.

“Give me a snappy lead,” my editors have urged for years. “Your first sentence should yank the reader right into the story.”

But when that story is your own obituary, coming up with that clever, catchy, come-hither opening line is daunting. On the plus side, I’m working with what we in the trade call “a soft deadline.”  With luck, it may be years or even a decade or two before the big copy desk in the sky calls this story in.

“Is Bateman terminally morbid?” you may wonder. “Why would anyone write his own obituary?”

The answer is simple: Someone else might get it wrong. And, really, who knows me better than I?

Although I wrote few obits in my many years at Sonora’s Union Democrat, I read hundreds. A few were excellent, most were adequate, but a significant minority were woefully lacking.

It may be true that your grandma loved to watch “Oprah,” that your dad’s outlook on life turned on the Oakland Raiders’ gridiron fortunes, or that your sister’s passion was playing the slots. But when I saw lines like these summing up 70, 80, or 90 years of living, I was happy only that the deceased were not around to read them.

Could this happen to you or me?  Certainly.

In the fog of grief during the days after I pass, my kids may remember only that their dad was a fanatic when it came to cleaning the kitchen. But is being a dish-scrubbing dervish the lead on my obit? Not if I write it first.

This write-it-first notion occurred to me when my mother hit 85, and I realized that I was shamefully unprepared to sum up her long and happy life. So I grilled my mom on her childhood, her siblings, her courtship with my dad, the trials she endured raising my brother and me, and her secrets to staying happily married for more than 50 years.

Now that I’ve ghostwritten her obituary, Mom of course shows no inclination to leave us. She’ll steam past 95 in March, highballing toward 100 and perhaps forcing me to write a new lead.

But don’t just assume you’ll have years to record the details of your own life or that of a loved one. Jeff Wilson of Sonora’s Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home knows better.

“It happens all the time,” he says. “Grown children come here not really knowing a lot of details about their mother or father.”

Or sister or brother, aunt or uncle.

A funeral director with more than 25 years in the business, Wilson encourages such unprepared family members to quickly get as much information as possible. But, as survivors are dealing with grief, stress and a welter of urgent decisions, this is often more than they can manage. Which is a shame.

“Obituaries are important,” says Wilson. “I see them as part of history. In 100 years, your descendants will look back at them to learn about their ancestry.”

And do you really want your great-great-grandchildren, after a lengthy search, to unearth a century-old obituary saying you were a hotshot at mopping the kitchen floor?

And what of your living family? Just because your children can’t pass a pop quiz on the basics of your life doesn’t mean they don’t love you. But how are they going to feel if their unwitting ignorance is reflected in a sketchy obit that leaves decades uncharted and important chapters of your life unwritten? Think of how much better your kids might feel if those final words recount a life well lived in rich detail.

So write that obit yourself. “And be a bit of a braggart,” urges Wilson. “This is the last chance you’ll get.”

He concedes, however, that only a “small, small percentage” of the deceased in T&W’s care have written their own obituaries.

The most complete biographies instead come from involved adult children who have taken the time to learn about their parents’ lives. If you have loving, engaged kids – or are one yourself – holiday gatherings are the perfect time to share and collect stories.

But what if your offspring have moved away or fallen out of touch? What if they are harboring some real or imagined grudge? Or are less than delighted that you’re leaving the family fortune to the Hamster Rescue Society?

Even if a son or daughter accepts the obit-writing job with enthusiasm, there may be a downside: What if that aspiring wordsmith considers your obituary his or her masterpiece and, literally, can’t wait to see it in print?

Your spouse? Great choice, unless he or she leaves you for someone whose obituary is likely years further down the pike than yours.

You could instead assign the duty to a friend, but what if he or she dies first? Or worse, turns into a Democrat (or a Republican)? Or starts rooting for the Dodgers? These may not be risks you wish to take.

You might figure the funeral director will pull the local newspaper’s file on you, and thus glean enough for a passable memoir. Figure again: You never know what might make it into one of those “head files.”

Do you really want the details of a 1983 DUI arrest in your obit? Or your short-pants photo as a  member of the 1967 Rail Road Flat School hoops team? Or your December 1999 assurance, relayed to an inquiring photographer in Jackson, that Y2K would bring the world as we know it to an end and that you would weather the next decade in a well-stocked, well-armed survival bunker?

If you want that obit done right, more and more seniors are realizing, you had better do it yourself. Hundreds of websites offer obit-writing tips, and the AARP says that it is – in so many words – the way to go.

But will your presumably deathless prose survive your own death?

Big-city newspapers, unless you are a well-known politician, hero or crook, typically charge to print obits. Many of their rural counterparts still run them for free, but flowery sentiment, mentions of the hereafter or the Almighty, and lists of surviving dogs, cats or parakeets will likely fall to an editor’s delete key.

That is, unless you pay the paper to run your unexpurgated obit as an ad – complete, unfortunately, with any grammatical, spelling or pet-name errors you may have missed.

Bottom line: It’s not too early to start searching for that snappy lead because, believe me, it might take a while. Then tell your story, check your grammar, make sure your pets’ names aren’t misspelled, and yes, run it by your kids at the next family gathering.

Who knows, they just might learn something.

Read more at batemansblog.com.



Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2012 12:00
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