Getting the Last Word

If you are younger than the traditional retirement age of 65, the notion of an obituary might be strange, morbidly strange. But if you are 70 years of age and beyond end-of-life stuff like wills and trusts, yes, even what will be included in your obituary is a natural part of preparing for the inevitable.

            Writing your own obituary might seem a bit pretentious but not if you are Judith Rosbe. According to the local historian, attorney and author, writing your own obituary has several important benefits. One would be ensuring that what you want said about your life becomes part of the obituary, and, secondly, you spare someone close to you doing what for them may be a difficult task.

            Rosbe struck on the idea of holding obituary-writing workshops after discussing program themes for seniors with Marion’s library director, Elizabeth Sherry. Throughout the month of September, Rosbe has been leading a group through the process of what constitutes a good obituary, one that leaves the reader knowing more about the deceased than merely a list of awards and good works. It tells you who this person was in life.

            Rosbe said the small group of attendees felt safe in sharing their thoughts and ideas on how they wished to be remembered and, “…telling the story so that it makes you wish you met that person.”

            The group learned that obituaries typically came from funeral homes. The responsibility of filling out a form would most likely fall to a grieving family member and there was always the chance, “they might muck it up,” Rosbe pointed out.

            What began in ancient Rome around 59 B.C. as death notices in a daily publication written on papyrus called Acta Diurna metamorphized into obituaries either written by specialists of the form employed by newspapers or sold like classified ads therefore becoming a revenue producer for the publication. By the 19th century, obituaries were becoming tributes to the deceased.

            “There is not a strict formula today for writing an obituary,” said Rosbe. “They started out as just death notices, notifying the public of a death and allowing them to participate in the mourning process. Many had a four-part structure: death announcement, short bio, survived by section and funeral information. Today, the modern obituary tells a story about the deceased, bringing them to life so that the reader wishes that they knew them. Obituaries today are more honest and open (i.e. telling how the person died, etc.) It is not just a dull resume of the person’s accomplishments.”

            As society has become more comfortable with what in bygone times might have been deemed family secrets, today deaths by drug overdose, suicide and other difficult endings are openly committed to the lines in a dearly departed’s obituary.

            “I believe there are no absolutes today about what must and must not be included,” said Rosbe, noting the modern tendency to, “be more open and honest. … There may be inclusion of same-sex partners, estranged family members and wedlock children.”

            Rosbe said she has always found reading obituaries interesting, especially those written by such newspapers as the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. She noted that one can learn so much about a person if the last words written upon the occasion of a person’s passing are well penned.

            But what about writing you own? How does one face what might be a daunting task?

            “Writing your own obituary gives one the opportunity to reflect about how one would like to be remembered and what one thinks is important about their life,” said Rosbe, stressing in the workshops that an obituary should be interesting to read, omitting trite statements and the obvious: “He passed on to his redeemer, he loved his wife, children, grandchildren, etc.”

            With the loss of newspaper circulation, internet websites now publish obituaries, and newspapers that still print also have web-based platforms so that finding out if a former school pal has passed on remains a daily ritual for many readers.

            A quick spin around the internet will produce a number of sites specializing in obituary writing. Yet it may be more enlightening and more comfortable a process for writing your own if done with a circle of supportive folks ready to take that journey with you. Thanks to Rosbe, some have been able to do just that.

By Marilou Newell

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