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.
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.