How to write an obituary
Okay, today’s subject sounds rather morbid but it’s really not. In fact, if you live long enough, you will find that it is an invaluable life-affirming skill. Eventually, a dear family member is going to pass on and you are going to be given the responsibility of summing up their lifetime in a few short sentences. To do so, you’ll need both writing skills and rock solid facts.
All newspapers and funeral homes have forms for you to fill out regarding your deceased loved one. This is an important document. It is a formal public farewell to the deceased and an important genealogical resource for current and future generations. There’s just one problem with those forms — they call for lots of statistics. And many times we don’t have enough information about the deceased to accurately fill them out.
I discovered this when asked to write my mother’s obituary. I was not the keeper of the family tree. Mother was. And she had kept all of that information in her head. Somehow, it never occurred to me that she was going to die without leaving behind a tidy little binder of vital statistics. Well, she did.
It became my lot to make phone calls all around the country to aging relatives and reconstruct her early life. She was born an only child and died at the age of 94, having outlived most of her cousins, making the job that much more difficult. It would have been so much easier if I had asked those questions when she was alive but her generation was reluctant to discuss such things.
My advice is to interview your parents and grandparents — ASAP. None of us are going to live forever and if we keep putting it off, it may be too late. Schedule it. Put it on the calendar. Make an appointment with the folks for afternoon tea (or a beer!) and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If you don’t do it now, then when will you?
To save time, prepare in advance a basic questionnaire: name, date and place of birth; parent’s and siblings’ names; education and marriage information; careers, etc. It’s best to write the basic questions and send a copy in advance of the interview. That way they can think about it, fill it out and you’ll save time. If you need a guideline pick up an obit form at the newspaper to use as a guide.
Make the interview fun. Don’t be morbid about it. Tell your loved ones that this is their 15 minutes of fame and “let’s get this done right.” The awkward part is getting started. Go over spelling and dates to be sure they’re correct. Once someone starts reminiscing about where he or she was born and how times have changed, the ice is broken.
Next, ask some questions to give life to the person’s personality. Sure, Aunt Mabel liked to play Bingo and loved being a homemaker but she was more than that. Maybe she was a Rosie the Riveter in WWII, volunteered with the USO or taught in a one-room school. Uncle Joe may have been a decorated veteran, sung in a barbershop quartet or traveled every year with a missions group to Mexico. Make it sound interesting not mundane.
During the interview, be sure and throw in a few questions about family in general. This isn’t for publication. But it will be the perfect opportunity for you to learn about family history and share it with your kids and grandkids.
Finally, comes the hard part: burial and memorial service arrangements. It’s not easy to talk about death and dying. My mother would not discuss anything about the possibility of her own death. We knew she wanted to be buried by my father but that was it. We could only go by previous family arrangements in terms of planning her memorial service.
If I had been wise, I would have discussed with mom other funerals and memorials that she had attended. I thought I knew what she liked but I didn’t know what she disliked. Perhaps you could take note of this approach and apply it to your situation.
One final thought — pictures are important. File individual current photos of your loved ones with the printed information. Be sure they are either dressed in their Sunday best or something appropriate for publication. Notice, I said ‘individual.’ Don’t publish a picture of the person cut out of a group photo with someone’s arm hanging over their shoulder. Personally, I like it best when photos are published of folks in both mid-life and older years, giving the reader a perspective of their whole lifespan.
In the spirit of disclosure, I must tell you that because of this column, I decided to ‘outline’ my own obituary. Not wanting to be one of those “Do as I say not as I do” advice givers, I took my own advice and put together a couple of pages of basic obit information for my family. It only took me about 30 minutes and I must say that on paper I look really boring. My kids will have to work hard to spice up my life!
Now, the ball is in your court. What are you going to do with it? I hope that you take up this task with enthusiasm. Practice by interviewing yourself and then move on to the family elders. Then pat yourself on the back and file the information. You will be glad that you did.
P.S. Finn John, my long-time editor, mentor and friend, asked me to write this column a long time ago. As usual, I procrastinated. So, Finn, this is for you. I hope I covered all the bases.