6 ways to get your obituary wrong

     (<a href=Painting of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_hamlet-yorrick-b_1200x675" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Painting of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Traditionally obituaries were handled by undertakers. If an individual was known widely, a journalist working on the obit desk might write an article, but for most people, a small death notice was the only time their name appeared in a public forum.

    That seems unimaginable now, when personal information is exhaustively reported and available, virtually, everywhere.

    Long before Facebook, people reconnected through newspaper obituaries. Readers scanned the columns for names of those they knew — or had once known — and finding one, had the chance to remember and offer condolences to loved ones.

    Traditionally obituaries were handled by undertakers. If an individual was known widely, a journalist working on the obit desk might write an article, but for most people, a small death notice was the only time their name appeared in a public forum.

    That seems unimaginable now, when personal information is exhaustively reported and available, virtually, everywhere. A boilerplate paragraph in tiny black type no longer seems a proper summary for lives so thoroughly chronicled. Which is probably why people have begun to write obituaries for themselves, in advance. And writing a death notice is a lot like preparing taxes: not everyone is suited to the task.

    But if the idea appeals to you, here are some things to consider.

    1. Never say ‘die’

    You have probably already noticed that no one dies anymore. Instead, people “pass away,” “go home,” or “enter eternal rest.” Death tests a writer’s euphemistic mettle, and it’s easy to go too far. That’s how funerals became “life celebrations,” which invites the unfortunate image of funeral directors as party planners. So in characterizing anyone’s demise, stick to generally acceptable phrases instead of saying they’ve “left the building,” “advanced to the cloud,” or “hopped the fence.”

    2. Who’s left?

    Survivors are a standard component of obituaries. The challenge is who makes the list, and in what order? I recently read an old soldier’s obituary, and the first person mentioned was his “life-long friend and barber.” Next it listed the actor Gene Kelly, whom he’d met in World War II. Far below them was the name of the man’s wife of 62 years, who survived him and, obviously, was a paragon of forbearance.

    In contrast, another notice said a man was “survived by his tolerant wife of 52 years,” which is charming—assuming, of course, that he wrote it.

    Admittedly, relationships are not as cut-and-dried as they once were, and this adds to the complexity—and unintended hilarity—in survivor lists. One grouping went like this: spouse, children, pet parrot, parents, siblings. How would you like to be someone’s mother and be listed after a bird?

    3. Less is more

    Naturally there are websites to help in writing obituaries, and the virtual experts endorse longer, rather than shorter, notices. Allow me to inject a note of caution: the more you write, the more potential for trouble. For example, an obituary should not be a trip through the family album. Someone I know embarked on a genealogical tangent, listing children, children’s spouses, grandchildren, grandchildren’s spouses and fiancées, winding up with great-grandchildren. Thankfully, none of the great-grandchildren were of marriageable age. It’s wonderful that the progeny all found happiness, but it wasn’t their funeral.

    Who departed, and memorial information, are all that’s really needed, and all many obituaries include. But web experts, as noted, do not appreciate brevity. “Plan for an exceptional obituary,” gushed one. In the first place, that’s a lot to expect from those of us who didn’t know we needed to write our own obituaries until midway through pretty ordinary lives. In the second place, what do they mean by “exceptional?”

    They also want us to personalize our obituaries, but here again, it’s easy to go wrong. One writer, wanting to say something nice but lacking material, wound up a death notice by saying the deceased was “well known for her stuffed artichokes.”

    Better to say less and leave mourners wanting more.

    4. The (endlessly) grateful dead

    Thank everyone who was important during your life, advise the obituary-writing experts, who must enjoy the Oscars. “… what about … that mentor at work, that friend, that great grade 5 teacher?”

    Here’s an idea: Before I start my obituary, I’ll warm up with overdue thank you notes. The recipients will appreciate the gesture while we’re all still breathing, and my heirs won’t have to see their inheritance spent on the publication of rambling acknowledgements of people none of them know.

    5. Be brief, and be gone

    No matter the author, there is a tendency in obituaries to make requests, and the web advisors give it their own twist: “Instead of asking people to make a memorial donation, [ask] people to buy a friend a flower, fill out an organ donation card, or do a good deed.”

    Let’s try to restrain the impulse to tell those we leave behind what to do with their time, treasure and organs. Let’s agree to posthumously ask only for kind thoughts and heartfelt prayers.

    In the middle of obituary advice, some sites proposed writing ethical wills, sort of a values tutorial for the next generation. It was not clear to me how they are to be delivered, but if an ethical will is handled like a regular (unethical?) will, imagine the surprise in the lawyer’s office when the discussion turns to sharing, instead of shares.

    Detailed obituaries and proscriptive wills remind me of Lieutenant Columbo, the television detective who just couldn’t finish a conversation. He’d start for the door, only to pause, scratch his head, and return to say just one more thing, annoying the murderer and everyone else. Death is like that: No matter how much we want one more word, at some point we have to stop talking and go away.

    6. There’s no deadline

    Despite glossing over obituary pitfalls, the experts made a good case until, like an ill-conceived obit, they went just a little too far: “Don’t put off writing your own obituary because it seems too big to finish,” they said. “Here’s the good news: you don’t have to worry about finishing it! Perhaps knowing that you do not need to complete it will make it easier to begin.”

    Telling people they don’t need to finish a task is the same as telling them they don’t need to start it. And second, if ever there were a writing assignment with a deadline, this is it.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.