We’re all going to die.
There, I said it. As much as people generally don’t want to think about their eventual demise, there’s just no getting around it at some point or other.
I think about death more than most people I know, because an important part of my job at the East Oregonian is writing, editing, proofreading and preparing obituaries for publication. I’ve seen all types of obituaries in the last 11 years, everything from the barest death notice to elaborate life stories taking up entire pages in the newspaper. They are written by families, friends, funeral homes and, in some cases, by the deceased themselves (in advance, of course).
When people I’m meeting for the first time ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I work for a newspaper, they inevitably jump to the conclusion that I’m a reporter. Almost without fail, there is a little jaw-drop and wide-eye when I say I write obits — especially when I say I enjoy the job. And while it can be a heart-wrenching experience to sit with someone struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, it is an important part of helping them find closure, and something I take very seriously.
Obituaries, depending on the person writing them, can be anything from solemn to heart-warming to hilarious. Most funeral homes have a formula they follow for families who don’t have an obituary prepared ahead of time, and it covers the basics: where they were born and to whom, where they grew up, who they married, what they did for a living, what they liked to do in their free time, and who they left behind. It hits the high points, but it can be a bit … formulaic? Some families who have the luxury of a little time to prepare pull out some of the lesser-known facts, the inside jokes, the gems that really give the public a peek into a person’s life. And those are a joy to read.
The best obituary I have read thus far was written by a man who knew the end was coming and wrote a mini-autobiography. It was funny and sweet and warm and told his life’s story from a point of view you rarely see in traditional obituaries. It also was one of the longest obituaries we’ve ever published: close to 2,000 words, or about five times the “usual” length. And it got me thinking: What do I want people to remember about me, after I’m gone? What information is important to me, and what would I prefer was left out? Because, honestly, you’re at the mercy of whoever takes on the formidable task of condensing your life into a few short paragraphs — at a time when the ones you leave behind are emotional and overwhelmed with funeral arrangements, estate attorneys and a lifetime’s worth of … well, your life to deal with. And don’t even get me started on families who play out their internal squabbles by arguing over a loved one’s obituary — or factions of families who submit separate obituaries so “the truth” of the story can be heard.
So I sat down one afternoon and wrote my obituary. It’s not a long one, and it contains most of the usual information about my family, jobs and whatnot. But I also purposely left out information about the parts of my life that I have chosen to move past (such as my ex-husbands) that my family would probably leave in. Yes, those things happened, and helped shape my existence, but why dwell on the negative? I’d rather people knew about the things that brought me joy: what was meaningful and important to me. It’s probably very different from what my family would write about me if I died tomorrow, but I think it would be a truer version of my life story.
I’m not saying everyone should sit down right now and write their own obituary. Some people, obviously, would think that was quite morbid. But based on my experience and my conversations with funeral directors over the years, there are some things I think it would be useful for everyone to do, as part of end-of-life planning, if you want to make things easier for your family:
•Make some notes about your basic information: birthdate and place, parents’ names, where you grew up, schools, college, jobs, marriage information, children, etc. Your family might have this information, but they might not have exact dates or other minutiae right at their fingertips. And if you have no close family, will your friends have access to any of your personal history? Keep in mind also that obituaries are goldmines of information for genealogists, but only if the information is correct.
•If there are important accomplishments or memories you’d like to have included in your obituary, write them down or talk to your family about them. Tell them why those things were important. It might just spark some interesting conversations, and your family will learn something about you they didn’t know before.
•In the same vein, if you have strong feelings about final arrangements, write them down or tell someone about what you’d prefer. My sister wants a Viking funeral, complete with pyre and flaming arrows, and said that if her sons don’t end up in jail in the aftermath they didn’t do it right. I think she’s only half kidding. Final arrangements can be packaged with your will, but it never hurts to have a sit-down with your executor while you have the ability to do so.
•And for goodness’ sake, have someone take a decent photo of you every five years or so! I realize some people don’t like to have their photo taken, or don’t think about it — especially if they are the one usually behind the lens. But on more than one occasion I’ve spent a goodly amount of time laboriously Photoshopping out the Oregon hologram on someone’s driver’s license photo because that was the only one the family could find.
If you have the capability to pre-pay for your funeral arrangements, most funeral homes have a booklet that allows you to get a lot of that basic information down, and it may be possible to include a preferred photo and a pre-written obituary (minus the final details) in your file. If not, put your obituary or notes, a photo, and information about how you’d like to be remembered in a manila envelope (or in a file on your computer) and make sure your executor knows how to find it.
It might just be a morbid exercise, I suppose. But if I get hit by a meteor tomorrow, at least my loved ones won’t have to wonder about what my obituary should say.
Renee Struthers is the community records editor for the East Oregonian.