If you wrote your own obituary, what would you say?

October 14, 2014

Obituaries can be either the best or worst part of a newspaper.

We all recognize the bad ones; they contain dry lists of awards and accomplishments, saccharin sentimentality and euphemisms for death.

But good obituaries — whether news stories written by reporters or classified notices placed by families — offer vivid descriptions of what a person was like and how he or she lived. In a few paragraphs, they offer a glimpse into a rich life, and maybe even some advice for living our own.

I love well-written obituaries. My favorite annual issue of The New York Times Magazine, usually published the first Sunday of each year, is called The Lives They Lived. It has short essays about a couple dozen people who died the previous year. Some were famous, others obscure, but each of their lives had a big influence on society.

So I was intrigued when Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, told me about a class he was teaching last Saturday called Writing Your Own Obituary. I decided to sit in.

“I think the more we talk about death and accept it as a part of our lives, the better off we will be,” Chethik told his 10 class participants. His own interest in death and its impact led him to write his first book, Fatherloss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads.

People came to the obituary class for many reasons. Some didn’t trust their relatives to get it right, or they wanted to have the last word, so to speak. Others weren’t so much interested in producing an obituary for publication as writing a meaningful letter to leave for relatives and close friends.

Contemplating your own obituary forces you to put your life in perspective: your faith, values, relationships, accomplishments and regrets. It’s an opportunity to reflect, evaluate and sum up. It can even give you a feeling of some control over that time when you will lose all control.

Chethik shared obituaries he found in newspapers around the country that were effective and even inspiring. Some were written in the first person and included life lessons and short tributes to people who were special to the deceased.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a deeper level of what you care about,” Chethik told the class. “It’s easy to go further in writing than you might do personally, at least in some families.”

Chethik suggested several prompts: List 10 words you think describe you. What activities do you love most? What have been your most important relationships? What have been your “mottos” throughout life?

Some people might also want to consider including confessions, regrets or reminiscences from their “glory days.” Accuracy in the details is essential; no family wants to be haunted by errors.

There is always debate about photos — should you publish a recent portrait or a favorite from years ago, or both? — and whether to give the cause of death or leave readers to speculate.

Beyond those basics, good self-written obituaries reflect the writer’s authentic voice. They are clear and concise and avoid minutiae. Distilling accomplishments, feelings and emotions into a few well-chosen paragraphs is a good discipline.

Writing your own obituary also might spark a desire to compose a longer memoir for family, friends or even publication. People like to read tales well told about interesting experiences. It is why powerful memoirs have always been best-sellers.

Online resources for writing your own obituary, or that of a loved one, include Obituaryguide.com and Obitkit.com, which was created by a former colleague of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One more thing: Don’t avoid humor. The right touches of appropriate humor can lessen the pain of death, just as they make life more enjoyable, Chethik said.

When comedian Joan Rivers died at age 81 last month, many obituaries recalled the funeral instructions she left in her 2012 autobiography. “I want it to be Hollywood all the way,” she wrote. “I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents.”

Like many of those in Chethik’s class, I found the process of contemplating my own obituary more enlightening than morbid. That’s because it made me think as much about how I want to live the rest of my life as how I want to be remembered.


Is Lexington the Literary Capital of Mid-America?

February 11, 2012

Tens of thousands of Kentuckians were focused last Tuesday night on cheering for the Wildcats as they thrashed the Florida Gators.

Still, a few blocks away from a packed Rupp Arena, the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning also was filled to capacity. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 was there to cheer for local writers. Basketball isn’t the only pursuit where Kentuckians play at the top of the game.

Ed McClanahan read a hilarious tale of adolescent angst from his new retrospective collection, I Just Hitched in from the Coast. Bobbie Ann Mason read from her new novel,The Girl in the Blue Beret. Nikky Finney read from her new poetry collection, Head Off & Split, which recently won the National Book Award. Before the all-stars took the microphone, several aspiring writers read from their work.

Finney’s National Book Award — and the viral Internet video of her amazing acceptance speech — could not have come at a better time for a new Carnegie Center initiative. Neil Chethik, the center’s new director, has proclaimed Lexington as the Literary Capital of Mid-America and the Carnegie Center as its statehouse.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Chethik said. “We are the literary capital and have been for many years. Half the job is marketing what we already have, and the other half is using that energy to create more.”

Many states have rich literary traditions. But few can top what writers who were born in or moved to Kentucky have produced — and are producing.

Robert Penn Warren was the nation’s first poet laureate, as well as the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary genre. William Wells Brown was the first published black novelist. Hunter S. Thompson helped create a new genre of first-person narrative, “gonzo journalism.”

Wendell Berry, whose environmental writing has attracted an international following, was selected last week to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on April 23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is the federal government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Eastern Kentucky’s mountains have produced, nurtured and inspired many outstanding writers, including James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harry M. Caudill, Gurney Norman, Janice Holt Giles, Verna Mae Slone, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Silas House. Western Kentucky’s great voices have included Mason and Irvin S. Cobb.

Central Kentuckians James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr. were national best-sellers a century ago, just as Kim Edwards, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver are today.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Cleanth Brooks were two of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics. Other notable Kentucky writers from the recent past include Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Gayle Jones and Guy Davenport.

Among today’s heavy hitters: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Chris Offutt, C.E. Morgan, Crystal Wilkinson, Jane Gentry Vance and Erik Reece.

Despite a deep streak of anti-intellectualism, Kentucky has always nurtured great writing. But why? Some say it is the state’s location. Kentucky was the first Western frontier, a Civil War border state and a place always in the midst of transition, migration, clashing values and regional tensions.

“Conflict makes for great stories,” Chethik noted.

“I think it’s because we like to talk so much and tell stories on one another,” McClanahan said. “It’s so much a part of life. Maybe it’s in the water.”

It is not the water, but the land, said Finney, a South Carolina native who has lived in Kentucky for two decades. “Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it,” she said. “We don’t really own the land. The land owns us.”

More than anything, Finney said, it is Kentucky’s mountains: “We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But writers need a supportive community, and Kentucky has it. You see it in the attendance at huge annual book fairs in Frankfort and Bowling Green, at bookstores across the state and at events such as the monthly Holler Poets reading, which packs Al’s Bar on North Limestone Street.

You also see it in the attendance at classes and events at the non-profit Carnegie Center, housed in a beautiful old building in Gratz Park that used to be the Lexington Public Library.

“This is a sacred space; a nurturing space for writers,” said Finney, who wrote much of her book,Rice, in one of the center’s study carrels. Mason has taken French classes at the center since 2006, and they helped inspire her to turn her father-in-law’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot into her latest novel.

The Carnegie Center will have a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. to gather ideas for this initiative. But Chethik already has some: a marketing campaign, literary conferences and more events that combine literature, music and visual art. Kingsolver is the keynote speaker for the center’s first Books in Progress Conference for authors and aspiring authors, June 8-9.

“There is something going on here,” Finney said. “There is a community hungry for good books and good words. And it has been for a long, long time.”

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