Writing My Obituary.
This afternoon, I worked on my obituary. No, I am not announcing a heavy diagnosis, a sense of foreboding, or even a glimmer of a deathwish.
And as a freelance writer, my Virgo self is asserting control over my final byline, whenever it may occur. Since I’m living the page-turner story of my life, I want to write the screenplay, too.
I have long appreciated the obituary columns as short-form biography, a not-so-prurient peek into the time capsule of a life. A well-written obituary summarizes a person’s achievements, attachments, and assertions. It can reveal important context about the past, offer insight into the human condition, or just make you wish you’d been seated next to that person at a dinner party. (Occasionally, it makes you relieved you hadn’t.) I am striving to write a column that engages the reader in the same way that life engaged me. My goal is to use this final byline to cheerfully introduce myself to those who never knew me, and fondly remind those who did.
I am also writing my obituary as a gesture to my family, to put one posthumous task in order. My children could cobble together a reliable version of my life, humorously peppered with a few of my charms. (“Never missed a rummage sale, always missed the milk expiration date.”) But do I really want to ask them to write a great profile in between cancelling my credit cards and tracking down my college roommate? No, this is one thing I am professionally and personally qualified to do. My estate sale is going to be challenging enough.
Writing my obituary holds me accountable to the storyline of my future. I hope my remaining years, months, or days will be spent in creative new endeavors, community contributions, and madcap travels. Do I dare remain stagnant, left to rehash past careers, educational degrees, litanies of nonprofit board service – or write a third paragraph brimming with descriptions of generosity, gratitude, and wonder?
This exercise requires focus on those pivotal events which have made me who I am: my first sight of the Seine, age 9; launching a senior care enterprise, age 27; authoring a Burning Man art book, age 51. To "flesh" out that last paragraph, quite literally, with another important pivot, I need to stay both curious and motivated.
Writing obituaries in advance is nothing new. The New York Times has a team of nine reporters anticipatorily drafting obituaries of famous subjects, to be news-ready when the inevitable occurs. Although these pre-written obituaries are strictly embargoed, even to their subjects, wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what they are going to include? It’s not likely they’ve got one filed away for me, so I’m determined to do it myself. The draft is all ready to go, even if I’m not. I’ve got another great paragraph left in me.
Jennifer Raiser is the author of five books, and lives in San Francisco.