Writing Your Own Obituary

As we grow older, chances are good that we’ll be asked to write an obituary for a friend or loved one. In fact, some of us take the bull by the horns and decide to write our OWN obituary, before it’s needed!

This task can sound daunting, but think about this: Writing your obituary is a gift.

First of all, it’s a gift to your loved ones. They don’t have to wonder and worry about whether they’ve mentioned everything and everyone important to you. You are the official documentarian of your life and the fact-checker.

This accuracy is also a gift to historians. It enables genealogy tracing and connects you to a specific time and place – data that could be of interest in the future.

And don’t forget, your obituary will be a keepsake remembrance for many who knew you. It should reflect the real you, as accurately as possible. You are the world expert on you, after all!

In addition to the gifts you give others, the process of writing itself can be enlightening, engaging and a real gift to yourself. As you shine the light of recollection on people, places and experiences you haven’t thought about for years, you may see a theme emerge or discover a narrative arc. With the wisdom age brings, you may find more compassion for yourself and less blame or criticism than you might have felt before. The writing process raises awareness of the swift passage of time and the preciousness of each moment; helps you separate the wheat from the chaff when making decisions about what to do in your remaining years; and enables reflection upon what is so important to you that you want to share it with others.

So don’t worry about being morbid, narcissistic or a control freak. Just ask yourself what you want people to think and feel when they hear your name after you’re gone. Then plant your posterior in a chair and get started!

(1)  What do you want to say?
Use this as an opportunity to celebrate your life! Recollect, talk to friends and family, and reflect on what has been meaningful for you and for them. Remember, this is not a resume, it’s a story! To help you identify and focus on these details, ask yourself:

  • What were the notable turning points in my life? How did I respond?
  • What people, activities, events, honors, books, pets, etc., meant the most to me?
  • Who had the greatest influence on me, and why?
  • How did I most influence others, including those I loved?
  • Are there messages for family and friends that I want to deliver in my obituary?
  • What were my particular passions?
  • What family stories did I pass down and/or will be passed down about me?
  • What three adjectives best describe me?
  • What do I like best about myself?
  • What trips or experiences in my life were most memorable, and why?

*How do I want to be remembered?
As you ask yourself these questions, write down answers and follow your train of thought. It may lead you to unexpected but useful places!

As you proceed with your research, you will contemplate many of your past actions. Look for those that made the most difference, that contributed to your uniqueness and your reason for existing. Share those actions and your thoughts about them in your obituary, as much as you feel comfortable doing. You and your readers will be glad you did, and this process can have great value to you and anyone else involved.

Here are some techniques for jogging your memory:

  • Join a memoir or writing group that meets regularly.
  • Keep a daily journal; as you write about the present, the past will surface. Write everything down, for future reference.
  • On a sheet of paper, draw circles for the organizing principles in your life, such as your core values, how you operate in the world, people who influenced you, people you influence, etc. As you fill in the circles, you will see connections that will lead to other circles and connections, some going back decades.
  • Read other people’s obituaries and think about what makes them appealing or not. Most are written in the third person (he or she did X, not I did X), and many appear to be written by children of the decedent. You can write in either the first person (I did X) or the third person, whichever you feel most comfortable doing.

(2)  Where do you want to say it?
Today’s options are many. Both printed papers and online media are available, either directly or through a mortuary. You may want your obit sent to fraternal or civic organizations, academic institutions, employers, the military or other entities to publish.

(3)  How much do you want to spend?
Cost is determined by the length of the text, number of photographs and what media it’s published in. Currently, the Idaho Statesman starts at $270; the Idaho Press at $35. Do your research before you write so you’ll have an idea of the length to shoot for.

(4)  What about photographs?
By all means, include one or two photos with your text. They attract attention and refresh readers’ memories. Sources might include school yearbooks, fraternal or professional publications and/or family albums. Ask your friends and relatives for their favorite images of you. Head shots are typical, but if you prefer a glimpse of you doing something fun or being with someone you love, use it.

(5)  Now it’s time to WRITE!
It takes a while to pull these details into a cohesive story of your life. Give yourself a few uninterrupted hours. Sit down and write a draft, as though you were writing a letter to a good friend. It can begin with your birth—or not. Come back to it several times over the next few days. Keep revising: Your subconscious will be working on it as you do other things.

What about tone? Look in the mirror! Your obit reflects your personality and style: methodical or free-spirited, serious or silly. Feel free to use humor, be inspirational, share hard lessons you’ve learned from life, thank those who deserve it. Write in the first person (“I died on Jan. 1) or third person (She/he died on Jan. 1), whichever feels most comfortable.

Early on, decide which family members and others to name and how they will be identified. Try to mention everyone important to you, whether or not you had a formal relationship. Pets count, too.

Double-check the spelling of all names and get all dates and places right. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation until the final draft. Then, ask someone who knows you and your family to proofread the obituary for accuracy, correct your English and tell you if something is missing.

Finally, specify who will update it before publication and where it should be submitted. Tell the person who will handle your end-of-life arrangements where it is.

(6)  For more information. . .

  • Lots more tips for writing an obituary and/or eulogy are available free at www.Legacy.com.
  • Another good source of inspiration is the ObitKit, a booklet and blog by Susan Soper (www.obitkit.com). For example, “A Baby Boomer turns 65 every 12 seconds, so it’s a good time to start thinking about how we will leave this life — ideally just as we lived it: with personality, panache and style, whether in our memorial services, parties, music, outfits and events.”
  • To access a video presentation on this topic, go to CLICK HERE and its corresponding handouts, go to: CLICK HERE.

Enjoy writing your “famous last words!”

Written by: Diane Ronayne

After earning a B.A. in Communications from Stanford University, Diane Ronayne began her journalism career as a copy editor at the Idaho Statesman, where she wrote obituaries from information provided by mortuaries. In 1986, she wrote her own obituary for the first time as an exercise at a Stanford publishing course. Since then, she has updated her own obituary and has composed obits for friends and relatives, including her father and first husband. Diane has been teaching obituary writing since 2016 through the BSU Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and other organizations.