Write your obituary

Saturday, April 29, 2017
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.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--When I have some time this afternoon, I'm going to watch that TED talk. An inspiring obituary? An obit that's uplifting and celebratory?

I can't wait to find out how it can be written...


After I retired from Silicon Valley's money world to write about my world, I took a writing course called, Writing on the Dark Side. The first assignment was to write my obituary. Once I got over the eeriness of the assignment, I began to write about myself in third person, but the fist attempt was NOT what I would want a reader to know about me. So, I embellished the piece with writing accomplishments (Unattained goals back then.) Guess what? Twenty years later, I've accomplished those writing goals. I highly recommend writing one's obituary. Now I hope the rest of it comes true, that I live to be 100!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I wrote my mother-in-law's obituary, and it was a lot harder than I thought! Your right, it's about life--the person's accomplishments, what they enjoyed, their family and friends, and who they touched during their time on this earth.

One of the exercises in leadership training is to stand over your own casket and visualize what people are saying about you. I get why they want you to do the exercise--to think about your achievements and how you can become a better person and leader--but I've always found it creepy. Plus, it puts emphasis on what others are thinking about you, which shouldn't really be too important. Maybe I should watch that TED talk to gain better insight. :)

Mary Horner said...

Sioux, I can't wait for you to watch it. It will be different from what you are expecting! Let me know when you do!

Georgia, thank you for your comment! The goal-setting aspect of writing your obituary is a different type of exercise that I think is very effective! I'm so happy for you that you accomplished what you wrote about, and I hope you live to 100!

And Angela, I agree about the casket aspect, it's not about what others think of you, it's what you think of you, and how you used your time to impact other people in your life. And to be honest, I had to think and rethink the topic and the headline many times before I hit the "publish" button. I was worried that someone may have just lost a loved one and she might be put off by the topic, or feel that it was insensitive. That, of course, is not my intention. But I do hope that you and others watch the video, I can almost guarantee you will be moved by it! Let me know what you think!

Margo Dill said...

I think this would be so difficult. Not because you are thinking about your death, but because it is so important and we have to be introspective. I feel like this would be an amazing exercise to do at a retreat where you had time to really focus and think. ;) I will talk to my writing group about this. Thanks, Mary!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Mary, you don't have to worry about hitting the publish button; you're always write thought-provoking posts with clarity and purpose. There will always be someone that doesn't like or agree with what we write, but hopefully we can inspire reflection. :)

Mary Horner said...

Margo, that's a good point, and a good idea about a retreat assignment. I like it!

And Angela, thank you for your kind words! I think we all worry and overthink at times, which is typical of writers! Sometimes we just have to get out of our own way!

Pat Wahler said...

Obituaries have definitely changed in modern times. I love reading obituaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were long and a little flowery, but definitely painted a lovely picture of the deceased.


Donna Volkenannt said...

The older I get the more I find myself turning to the Obit section of the paper--hoping my name isn't there. ;)
I'll have to check out the Ted talk.
Thanks for another inspiring post, Mary.

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