“By reading these words, you’ve probably figured out that I’ve left this life and am headed to my next destination. I’m looking forward to the journey.”
I found these first lines from a self-written obituary in the local newsletter. I had to reread those sentences before comprehending that, first, someone had managed to write their own obituary, and, second, that person was a former neighbor. I knew that writing your own obituary, if you have that luxury, is something that’s becoming more popular. But it’s still a shock that someone who was dying would have enough composure to celebrate his life.
What kind of person is able to record the details of their life, knowing that these will be their final words? Dan, my old neighbor, had a great sense of humor and a big heart; he was always happy to share stories with me about the history of our small mountain community. He had the wonderful ability of not taking himself too seriously, which comes out loud and clear in the obituary. After Dan wrote in his obit that he got a master’s degree in clinical pharmacology, he added: “I know it’s not as impressive to you academics as a PhD, but it worked for me.”
How do you sum up your life? What do you say about yourself? What do you emphasize and what do you ignore? It seems a tricky endeavor, harder than having your survivors—spouse, children, friend—write your obit after you die. Friends and family might be able to easily list your accomplishments, but only you can emphasize what was most important in your life.
With Dan, it was his desire to help. When talking about his job as a pharmacist, he said “I don’t know if I saved any lives, and it really doesn’t matter one way or another. I just know that I could help when help was needed, and that’s what made my life worthwhile.” After he retired, he went on to volunteer with Meals on Wheels, cooked meals for vets and the homeless, joined efforts to rescue turtles on South Padre Island, and helped seniors in that community maintain their homes.
His sense of humor flows through the obit. When writing about donating his old truck to an organization that takes care of the homeless, he warned: “The battery is brand new but go easy on the clutch.”
In my younger years one of my jobs was editing obituaries for newspapers, and humor had no place in these strictly formatted accounts. At that time, newspapers printed them for free (now you have to pay), which meant that the death notices were kept to a minimum number of words, and the details were sparse: date of birth, parents’ names, the deceased’s occupation, spouse and children (if any), and a list of survivors. I was sure that this person’s life had more interesting aspects than the names of all their nieces and nephews, but nothing dramatic was allowed to creep in. I always wanted to know more about these people—What did they do for a living? What were their hobbies? What made them happy?
Now that people pay for the obituaries, and without the heavy hand of an editor, the survivors are able to share stories that give you a glimpse into the deceased’s life and what kind of person they were. But a self-written obit is even better. I can hear Dan’s voice from the grave—self-deprecating, funny, full of joy and appreciation of his life. Knowing you’re dying provides a sharp, intimate perspective on your life like nothing else can. It’s a gift to those you left behind.
A few years ago in an Edinburgh churchyard, I came across the tombstone (shown above) from a man, John Kay, who died in 1826, which summed up his life in a few words: “Barber, miniaturist and social commentator.” At the time, I wondered how I could condense my life into a few words. Now I know that, if I have the ability when the time comes, I could write a few more lines that just might reflect my chaotic, sad, happy and rich life.