The Last Word: Writing Your Own Obituary
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Unless you plan to have your memoirs published posthumously, writing your obituary represents your final chance to connect with loved ones and friends. It’s not a bit macabre to write your obituary.
“We’re always happy to share novels we liked; why can’t we share obituaries?” said Linda Lowen, a writer, reviewer for Publishers Weekly and instructor at Downtown Writer’s Center at the YMCA in Syracuse. “You’ll have complete control.”
It’s also a gift to free your family from this task.
First, you should select a style that reflects who you are. If you’re always there to build up and help people, inspirational might work for you. Focus on encouraging those you leave behind to carry on and do good, but don’t sound like you’re extending expectations from the grave.
Practical and down-to-earth? Try a more biographic style, stating the facts of your life in a chronological, linear fashion, from birth to death.
“Don’t include every single job you’ve held, community group you’ve been involved with and every volunteer position,” Lowen said. “It sounds like a resume or CV for the dead. This is not what you want in an obituary.”
Include a few interesting anecdotes to keep it from becoming dry.
“Focus on unique details that make you different from other people, not a strawberry birthmark on your shoulder, but something that is part of the fabric of who you are that you want to be remembered by,” Lowen said.
Be specific but not prolific in what you list. Lowen advised that picking just a few examples is better than a blow-by-blow account of your life.
If you enjoy teaching, an educational tone is good. Share the lessons you’ve learned throughout your life to help others with a touch of gratitude for those who have helped you. That way, you won’t sound preachy.
If you’re the life of the party, use a humorous. Yes, it’s OK to be funny even in death since humor is part of the human experience and appropriate to reflect your life if you’re a lighthearted person. While gentle joking is fine, keep in mind that those who read it may be emotionally raw.
Unsure of your style? It’s okay to mix up a few elements from each of the above as long as it’s true to you. Lowen recommends reading others’ obituaries for ideas.
You can write in first person (“I grew up in Manlius…”) or third person (“Maria Rodriguez grew up in Manlius…”); however, it’s important to keep the voice consistent throughout the document. Lowen prefers third person, as it makes the process easier.
“It’s very hard for people to write about themselves,” she said.
Anthony Farone, licensed funeral director at Farone & Son, Inc. in Syracuse, encourages obituary writers to include close relatives, such as parents, spouse, children and grandchildren.
The list should be divided between “preceded in death” and “leaves behind” — those still living. Read a few published obituaries to understand how this is done.
In addition, “list the residence, and sometimes age is important and where you were born. List your education, work, civic interests, hobbies and if you like, religious affiliation,” Farone said.
List any educational and career highlights, awards and military rank, branch and service locations. Talking about special trips, hobbies and collections can give a glimpse of what is important to you.
Make sure your obituary is among your final arrangement documents and that your children are aware you have written it.
Periodically review your obituary to update it as needed. For example, if one of your children divorces and remarries, you’ll want to have the correct spouse in the write-up.
Avoid mean-spirited jabs or unpleasant subjects. Writer Fred Wilson, owner of WilWrite, LLC in Camillus, said that a divorce is one example of topics to avoid; however, if you had children with a former spouse, it’s OK to mention the ex’s name in association with your mutual children.
“This is a time for positive things,” he said. “An obituary is not a legal document, but there are things that don’t have to be mentioned. Follow your own judgment. It should be written with feeling, not objectivity.”
He encourages obituary writers to include a recent photograph, not one from 40 years ago, since it’s likely you’re not recognizable.
Since newspapers charge for obituaries by the word, it’s good to be concise.
“It shouldn’t be more than a few paragraphs long,” Wilson said. “The kids can add ‘Special thanks for the staff at the hospital’ and when and where the service will be.”
Wilson added that having someone look it over can help you ensure you have eliminated grammatical and spelling errors.
Said Lowen, “The idea is that when there’s going to be an accounting of your life, wouldn’t you like to have a say in that and not who others believe you to be? That’s why writing an obit in advance is an essential last gift you give to yourself.”