Writing your own obit: a chance to reflect, get it right
When Edna Briggs dies, she doesn’t want a well-meaning loved one to whitewash the ups and downs of her life. To avoid that, she is writing her own obituary.
Briggs, who is 69 and lives in Los Angeles, wants her farewell to offer insights into why her life turned out the way it did. Her two children might not understand how certain events — her father forbidding her from trying for a scholarship to Howard University, for example, or the pride of earning a prestigious internship — affected her path, so she’s handling it herself.
“I will describe my life the way I want it described,” says Briggs, a health care administrator and passionate genealogist. “I believe in having the final say.”
It’s an idea with which many Baby Boomers can identify, says Katie Falzone, spokeswoman for Legacy.com, a website that partners with newspapers and funeral homes to publish obituaries.
“Baby Boomers are comfortable talking about themselves in a way that previous generations never did,” says Falzone. “They’re used to defining their lives,” and to challenging the status quo.
While less than 1 percent of the obituaries on the site are self-written, the number is growing, she says. Last year, the site ran about 525 self-penned obits, compared to only about 165 a decade ago. The number has doubled in the last five years.
Who better to recount your story than yourself, says Sarah White, a writing coach in Madison, Wisconsin, who teaches a “selfie obituary” writing class online and at senior centers and libraries.
“Who knows all the parts of your life? Your children know you as a parent. Your co-workers know you professionally. Your spouse probably knows very little about your life at work. They say your siblings are the people with you your whole life,” she says. “I wouldn’t leave this up to my siblings. They don’t know anything about me.”
Kerry Kruckmeyer, who died unexpectedly in April, wrote the obituary that recently appeared about him in the Arizona Daily Star.
“I thought this would be different, amusing and enjoyable,” he wrote. He concluded that he had lived “a very good and blessed life for which I am most thankful.”
Kruckmeyer had distributed the document to his family about a decade ago, says his brother, Korey Kruckmeyer of Tucson, Arizona. “It’s typical of him,” Korey says. “It reflects his sense of humor.”
And the self-written obituary struck a chord with readers. “I’ve gotten a bunch of calls from people who don’t know me or Kerry just wanting to talk about it,” Korey Kruckmeyer says.
Writing such an essay — whether or not it’s actually published someday as an obituary — can be “very affirming,” White says. “It always seems to add up to more than the person realized.”
The writing process got Jim Weber of Tumwater, Washington, thinking about his future as well as his past.
“You may find you have some unfinished business,” says Weber, 60. “It may cause you to make decisions about how you want to spend the rest of your life.”
In his self-written obituary, he notes a strained relationship that he would like to see healed. He also pokes fun at his life, connecting his pursuit of a law degree to hours spent watching “Perry Mason” with his mother, and pointing out that he met his “third and final wife” in the freezer section of the local grocery.
White’s own selfie obituary highlights her love of traveling with her husband, her career as a commercial artist and writer, and her passion for her pets and the outdoors. “She also camped frequently in Wisconsin’s north woods,” she writes, “but would not reveal her favorite campsite even upon her deathbed.”
Putting your life down on paper is also an opportunity to share family history with future generations, she said. “I think people should leave a record of their life,” she says. “Be the ancestor you wish you had.”
Taking White’s class made Pattie Whitehouse of Victoria, British Columbia, realize she had a lot she wanted to say. She ended up with a document of more than 900 words, and intends to continue editing until she meets her ultimate deadline. Whitehouse injected some humor in the piece, which focuses on her passion for the environment. For now, the final line reads: “As she wished, Pattie’s remains were chipped and used as mulch.”
“Which tells you a lot about me,” the 65-year-old says. “The people who know me will recognize me in it.”
She plans to give the document to her partner, Robert, and her sisters to distribute upon her death.
Briggs, a widow, is putting everything in writing because her daughter doesn’t want to discuss the matter, she says. As a genealogist, Briggs says, she has seen too many erroneous obituaries. She also knows that handling the task now will make things easier for her daughter when she passes.
Alan Gelb, 66, of Chatham, New York, began thinking about preparing his final words when he started attending more funerals.
“When I would go to services, I found myself missing the voice of the person who was not with us,” he says.
Gelb, who helps high school students draft college entrance essays, decided that older adults could benefit from a similar task. In his book, “Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story” (Tarcher Books, 2015), he encourages readers to write a story that captures some of their core values, to pass it on to future generations. Gelb recommends having the story read at your funeral. The exercise is a good segue into obituary writing, he says.
“Writing your own obituary is sort of like voting for yourself when you run for office,” he says. “It may be a bit self-serving but it is fully warranted, and it can make all the difference.”