Writing Your Own Obituary

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Does writing your own obituary sound ghoulish? Then imagine how you’d feel if someone got hold of your life the day after your demise and, in summarising it for the local paper, left out all the things about you that you’d most like to be remembered.

Writing an obituary (from a Latin word for ‘death’) is a great way to bring procrastination to an end. It offers a straightforward method to assist you in comparing what you have actually achieved in your life against your aspirations and stated priorities. It’s a bit like writing a potted autobiography and gives you a chance to see your life from a bird’s eye view. The idea is that you write your obituary for now – as though you died yesterday.

If you like the idea, but haven’t a clue how to start, here are some suggestions:

You could start by consulting:

• Journals for the last few years (or appointment books) – if you have them.
• Photograph albums.
• Relevant correspondence you may have kept.

In addition, you could:

• Divide your life up into sections – each 7 years long: what stands out in your memory from each of those 7 year cycles?

If you like research:

• There are lots of good collections of obituaries – you might like to consult them in your local library to get a feel for how this could look.
• Reading today’s online obituaries in a national newspaper can also be informative or inspirational.

Some questions to get you started:

• What are you most proud of having achieved?
• Write down all the jobs you’ve ever done.
• List holidays, and places you’ve visited.
• What have your hobbies and leisure activities included?
• Your best (and worst) moments?
• What are three of the funniest things that ever happened to you?
• And three of the saddest?
• What about three of the weirdest?!
• What are your weaknesses? (what do your friends and family say they are?!)
• And how about your strengths?
• What do you want people to understand about you?
• What do you feel your life has been about?

If someone asked these questions about you after you had gone, what would you imagine the answers would be?

• What was s/he like?
• What did you most like about him/her?
• What was s/he best at?
• What do you think most frightened him/her?
• What did h/she enjoy most?
• What makes him/her unique in your memory?

This doesn’t all have to go into the obituary: some of it will be very personal – tender, even. The idea is to jog your memory, to stir below the everyday surface considerations, and get accustomed to taking an overview of your life.

If you were writing for publication, then you probably wouldn’t want to go much over 500-600 words, unless the person concerned was very famous. Here, however, your aim is different: you’re looking to see what stands out about your life as you review it now, without the constraints of word counts or deadlines (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Invent a date and cause of death and … start writing the first draft. Here it could be useful to use the rules of writing practice suggested by Natalie Goldberg in her wonderful books, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. Basically – write for you: throw caution, politeness and censorship to the wind. The most important thing is to set a time during which you will keep writing (10 minutes, for instance) – then keep your hand moving. Don’t pause, think, fiddle with punctuation or ponder over spellings and show no respect for the lines in your notebook. ‘Go for the jugular,’ Natalie counsels. And be as specific as possible – you don’t just love vegetables…you simply adore cauliflower, because…

When you’ve got it all out of your system – the ecstasies and the agonies, the triumphs and travesties – leave it for a few days at least. ‘Sleep on it’ is probably the most valuable advice a writer could ever be given.

Then, when you’re ready, review what you’ve written and précis it to 600 words. ‘Epitaphion’ was the Greek word for a funeral oration and an epitaph is the short (often pithy, religious, or even funny) text carved on a tombstone. When you’re happy with the obituary you’ve created, try condensing it further still into a one-line epitaph.

The romantic poet John Keats’ grave declares: ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’ Spike Milligan, the famous British comedian, wrote: ‘I told you I was ill.’

If you are preparing a file of papers for those who will take care of your affairs after your demise, perhaps you might consider adding your Obituary thoughts and writings to the collection. It could be a great help to your loved ones at a time when they’ve already got enough to deal with.

Article by Caroline Sherwood

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