Recently we covered obituary writing in my journalism class, which, to some, sounds like the least compelling aspect of journalism. Just like all writing, though, there's an art and science to the method.
The group of students I have now is young. They probably have read very few obituaries. Do you read them? Do you love them? You can find some great ones online, but that's not the norm. Most are written in a straightforward, basic journalistic style that doesn't leave much room for creativity.
I like the fact that obituaries summarize a life so succinctly -- a few words can span numerous decades, and it's all tied up nicely and neatly into a small package that has a beginning, a middle, and an end (no pun intended). The problem, though, is that most are too compact. Many wonderful details about a person are left out, the reduction is too severe, and readers don't get an idea of who the person really was.
While researching the topic for my class, I found a TED Talk by Brad Meltzer titled "How to Write your own Obituary" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgiixRwn6xU).
What new information could he bring? Plenty. His video changed the way I view obituaries because I expected it to be depressing, which it wasn't. And I wasn't expecting it to be inspirational, which it was.
His message was that obituaries are not about death. They are about life, and legacies, and friends and families and strangers and communities. They are about how your life touches the lives of others. After watching the video, I gave my journalism class an assignment to write their own obituaries as if they were at the end of their lives looking back at all their accomplishments.
And, because everyone reading this is probably a famous (or soon-to-be-famous) writer, you should try this, too. I like this exercise because it addresses your philosophy of life, along with examining which goals and accomplishments are considered truly worthwhile.
Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She also teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.