At first glance, writing your obituary might seem like a morbid thing to do, particularly when everyone is buzzing with New Year’s energy. But give me a few minutes to explain, and you might find taking me up on this worthwhile.
First, some brief context. When my father died suddenly, about five years ago, it was left to me to write his obituary for the newspaper and a few other places where it would be published. I spent hours fumbling over words, struggling with what to include, attempting to put myself in his place to develop a sense of what he’d want people to remember about him. This wasn’t easy. I thought I knew my dad well, but when it came to capturing the essence of the man for the world to see, I was less than prepared.
Eventually, I came up with something that my family agreed was adequate, and we submitted it. The problem for me was the ‘adequate’ part. I felt like it should have been so much more than satisfactory. My father influenced many people in different ways–from family to friends to strangers he’d meet just about anywhere he went–and I was at a loss to do his influence justice.
At least, that’s how I felt. My frame of mind at the time was darkened, and trying to think through something as significant as telling a man’s story in a couple hundred words was daunting. I understood, of course, that anything I might say in so few words could never measure up to what he truly meant to those who loved him. Yet, this was the final public expression of his character and achievements—it seemed beyond important.
When I gained some distance from writing the obituary, maybe six months later, I started thinking about what I would want someone to write about me. I wondered who would be left with the challenge that I faced. And then I thought–why should anyone else have to take this on? I’m still here. Why abdicate the responsibility to someone in the future?
So the first reason I decided to write my own obituary was purely pragmatic. I had experienced the struggle of writing my father’s, and I didn’t want to pass the angst on to someone else. The more I thought about it, the more this seemed like a responsibility.
Then I started writing and something else dawned on me, obvious though it was. An obituary as I was conceiving it isn’t a static document. Anything I could communicate about myself in the present moment could change, or be replaced by something more relevant. Who knows what? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Committing to write my obituary was not going to be a one time deal. It would require revisiting later on, perhaps more than once.
I think it was at this point that the pragmatic sense of responsibility gave way to something much more personal, something I’d mentally shelved during my nuts and bolts evaluation of what needed to happen. I realized that I wasn’t really writing this short story of myself, revisions and all, to save someone else the trauma of doing it. I was writing it to face my own death.
I’d pulled a fast one on myself, the seeds of which were no doubt planted when my father died. Experiencing his sudden loss had left me with a need to really come to terms with my mortality. I guess, for whatever reason, I’d avoided addressing this head on. But the psyche never stops conjuring ways to confront consciousness with the hard truths.
All of which brings me to my suggestion as a new year begins. Looking back, I think the painful road brought me to the right place, and with time I’ve become convinced that arriving there doesn’t necessarily require experiencing a monumental loss. Confronting death is clarifying. It uncovers what’s important, forces focus on what’s meaningful, and leaves you with an appreciation for the time you have. For me, writing my obituary (at least a first draft with pending revisions) served as a way to stand toe-to-toe with the inevitable.
Of course, writing your obituary isn’t the only way to accomplish the objective. I’ve talked to people who have written personal vignettes describing how they think they’ll die, and how they’d like their family to remember them. Others have had open discussions with family members about preparing for their death—a sort of mental preparation for the teller as well as listeners. One idea I liked is keeping a journal written especially for loved ones to read upon the occasion of one’s death.
All of these ideas, like writing an obituary, are ostensibly outward-focused, but the most significant value is to the writer. The topic isn’t cheerful, but it’s irrevocably real.
Ending on a happy note…I wish everyone a tremendous New Year, and thanks very much for reading.