Last Words from the Grave

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.

5 thoughts on “Last Words from the Grave

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  1. Who better than you to sum up your life in an obit? You needn’t wait till you’re dying to write it, and it will be one less thing for your grieving survivors to deal with. And as noted, it’s a last chance for the deceased’s voice to be heard. I think it’s a wonderful idea.

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  2. I wonder why I would even want one at all. No one is going to remember me for long. I think my entrance into this world was hardly noticed by anyone except my parents. I never made a splash in life, and when I die, I doubt anyone will even notice.

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  3. From reading this piece, I now better understand why obituaries were so strictly formatted and sparse in earlier times!

    Because this pandemic afforded me more space for quiet pursuits, I finally created an ancestry.com account and am attempting to build my family tree of direct ancestors as far back as I can. At first it was exciting, but then came the realization that most of what I can find are the bare-bones kinds of details: names, dates, kin, and locations. I now realize that I had been hoping to find different kinds of information about them. What were their lives like? What were their feelings around their life’s milestone moments? What shaped their wishes, and what influenced their decisions?

    I would love for there to be a tradition where my family members recorded their responses to a lot of different kinds of questions to get a sense of who they are, and catalogued those responses from each generation of descendants.

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    1. Alexis, I agree with you. I always wanted more intimate details about my ancestors. I was lucky enough to have an aunt (my father’s sister), who loved to share stories about the family. Before she died (a year ago), I sat down with her as much as I could (she lived in California) and recorded great stories about my grandparents and their families, some of them who lived in the old country. My feeling is that every family has one person who collects stories. In my family, it’s me. In your family, it’s probably you.

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