Should I write my parents' obituary in advance?
July 25, 2012 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Preparing a parent's obit in advance: Morbid? Wise? Avoiding a part of the healing process?

My parents are both getting older and my father in particular is not in good health. When the time comes, it will likely fall to me to write their obituary. I know I will not be in a good place when this happens and I don't want to do their memory a disservice with a poorly written obituary.

Would it be horribly weird and morbid of me to write their obituaries in advance? Does writing the obituary help with the grieving process? Should I just let it go and worry about it when the time comes?

Neither of my parents are comfortable with talking about mortality, so asking them if they would like to write their own or help me write theirs doesn't seem like a good idea.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Newspapers have obits on file for celebrities as a routine thing. If you know yourself well enough to know that this will be hard for you to do at the time, I don't think there is anything wrong with working on it in advance, especially since you say you want the obit to serve their memory well.

Maybe not frame it as part of working on their obituary, but you might talk to them about their proudest achievements, or the things that are most important to them, as a way of getting them to talk about their lives generally.
posted by ambrosia at 5:07 PM on July 25, 2012

One of the nicest things my father did was write his own obituary which included a great deal of detail. It was one less thing to feel anxiety about when he passed unexpectedly. I simply updated some of the information when it came to final edit. I look at his pre-written obituary as an act of loving kindness on a pretty rough day.
posted by jadepearl at 5:12 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The funeral home had someone on staff to write my father's. They collected details to produce something brief and ordinary, but I seem to recall being asked if I wanted something longer (they quoted a price related to the size of the notice in the paper). Having a draft of your own ready to hand seems fine, but it's not necessarily something you have to do either now or then, depending on your means.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:18 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's weird or morbid. I think it's sweet and respectful to think of the best way you can speak for your parents, as well as healthy for you to prepare. Death happens; pretending it doesn't is one of the many things our culture does wrong.
posted by headnsouth at 5:18 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

My dad died unexpectedly in 2005 and the obit I wrote on the spot for him was nowhere near as good as the one I wrote over the next 6 years for my grandmother. I came up with a rough draft, then she helped me (until the dementia became too advanced) polish it until it was actually needed last November. Preparing it in advance was a labor of love for both us and she appreciated having some control over the final product, adding little details I wouldn't have thought of, but were important to her.
posted by buggzzee23 at 5:33 PM on July 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

My mother, who is terminally ill, asked me and my sister to write her obituary. We are both professional-level writers, so from a technical standpoint it was not difficult. Emotionally, I found the exercise to be helpful. It led me to evaluate my mother's life and considerable accomplishments and qualities in a way I had not really done before. So I probably did some pre-grieving, but that was to be expected anyway, I guess. I did the initial draft, bounced it over to my sister, who made some changes and improvements, and bounced it back to me. We've always been a good team and it went well. I asked my mother if she wanted to read it, and she just smiled and said "No."
posted by charris5005 at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Neither weird nor morbid, it's merely planning for the inevitable. I wouldn't worry about producing a polished, ready-to-publish version though: that would certainly be nice, but at minimum work up some sort of rough draft, or perhaps a list of points you'd want covered.
*Born where and when? Went to x school, graduated 19xx with a degree in???
*Some families like to include the deceased's parents, even if they're long gone.
*Military service, including branch, final rank, and dates served.
*Work/career highlights --- 'owned his own plumbing business for many years', 'retired as VP of whatever'.
*Community work or social stuff, like having been a Scoutmaster for 40 years or having been an x-degree Mason. 'Enjoyed performing as Santa for the local orphanage for many years.'
*Survived by: spouse first, then children and their spouses; then surviving siblings and their spouses. If there's only a handful of grandchildren go ahead and name them, otherwise perhaps some version of 'also survived by 22 grandchildren, 4 great-grandchildren, and a host of neices, nephews, and friends.'

Do you currently look at the obit pages in your local newspaper? If not, maybe you should, if only to get a feel for the proper style, as well as tips on the kind of things you'd like included.
posted by easily confused at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2012

FWIW if your parents are likely to pass on in the near future, then all 3 of you need to have a long discussion about wills, power of attorney, location of important documents in their home, their funeral wishes, decisions about preplanning the funeral, and other weighty subjects. The obit is a minor situation, if they haven't done any of this yet.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not weird. Great recommendations here. For the same reasons I'm in the process of scanning and, in some cases re-printing, photos of my still-living grandmother from early childhood through various phases of her life.
posted by bennett being thrown at 6:45 PM on July 25, 2012

But for some reason, considering the early purchase of a black suit does feel morbid to me.
posted by bennett being thrown at 6:46 PM on July 25, 2012

Unless your parents are celebrities, royalty, or extremely important in their respective fields, most likely the newspaper will just write up a short paragraph with the basic details of their lives.

My assumption has always been that it's just a fill-in-the-blanks form the newspaper or maybe funeral homes have on hand.

I'd worry a lot more about a eulogy, which is a lot more than that and also involves public speaking.
posted by Sara C. at 6:59 PM on July 25, 2012

I don't think it's weird at all, but I bet it would be easier emotionally, maybe, if instead of thinking of it as, "I'm going to write up my parents' death notices while they are still alive and kicking" you framed it as, "My parents mean so much to me, I would love to know more about their lives [before I was born|when Dad was in the service|that time you lived abroad]," and you can ask them stuff about themselves (so you don't have to bring up death and can instead just ask them for stories) and maybe write it all up as part of a family history.

Another method to do that would be to write them letters along the lines of, "Mom, I was just thinking today about how much it meant to me when you [did nice thing] and I was always so impressed by the story of how you [were impressive while doing other thing]," mail it, and keep a copy of the letter.

If they have a wedding anniversary or milestone birthday, you could also enlist their friends/relatives to write a memory of them to be shared at the party.

I guess basically make it more like a living history/family history thing and it seems like it would be less morbid/more joyful. Plus, that way, all the info is at-hand when the time comes, with specificity, and you just have to snip and paste it together, but you get to enjoy the reminiscing WITH them now.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:01 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know I will not be in a good place when this happens and I don't want to do their memory a disservice with a poorly written obituary.

Also, in my experience, the funeral director will guide you through this process. At my paper, we charge a flat rate for notices and the funeral director prepares them with the family, so some are brief and some are more detailed. Hopefully you have a good funeral director and they make it easy for you, but you are right that the grief definitely clouds things.

In my experience from reading the notices, every person who passes away was beloved by their entire family, had many friends, loved animals and laughter, and would give you the shirt off their back. I've always thought it would be nice if more notices said stuff like, "Joe was our family historian and never forgot a birthday, let several down on their luck friends stay in his spare bedroom- one friend stayed five years- and was famous for his 'Fainting Duck' prank of 1978 at Seymour Lake, which is still remembered fondly by all except the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." Or just any specific thing, which is why I think it's a good idea to have some stuff written down in a non-obit format beforehand- I think people get so upset it's hard to remember the specifics, just the emotions.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:09 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

My assumption has always been that it's just a fill-in-the-blanks form the newspaper or maybe funeral homes have on hand.

Really depends. I wrote the local obit for my dad (he had a few longer ones because he was sort of well known) and the funeral home offered to write it but I said no thanks. I don't really think it was part of the healing process for me though it was a good chance for me to think about and write down some nice stuff about my dad who I was fairly pissed at for a number of understandable but minor reasons. I think it's a great idea to just even think about what you'd write though what people have said is accurate, obits tend to be pretty pro-forma [though they don't have to be] and eulogies are where people's efforts really shine more. If you're just really interested in obituaries, you might like this book.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 PM on July 25, 2012

You can think of it and present it to your parents as a matter of genealogy research for yourself or your children or nieces and nephews.

The Google News Archive Search can be handy for finding things like wedding announcements for the U.S. and there are other archives for countries around the world like Papers Past for New Zealand.
posted by XMLicious at 8:15 PM on July 25, 2012

Yeah, it's not really a fill-in-the-blanks sort of situation, and every case is different.

My own mother died first; my father refused any and all assistance, and so her obit is a very brief and barebones. When he died the following year, I wrote his obit, then ran it past my siblings, and so his is a more thorough short biography. Because her only daughter was too distraught to do it, I also wrote the obit for my oldest sister when she died suddenly; my niece liked it so well she included it in the funeral program. (And honestly, I've written one for myself, although who knows if they'll use it as is or drop it entirely!)

If at all possible, it would also be a good idea if you can talk your parents into prearranging their funerals; again, this isn't weird or morbid, it's merely making sure that you get the funeral and service you'd want, plus --- speaking from experience here! --- it really takes a huge load off the family at a very emotional time. At the very least, if you can't convince them to make prearrangements with a funeral home? Talk to them, and at least find out what they'd prefer: burial or cremation, a viewing (yes or no), a religious service and/or graveside service.
posted by easily confused at 8:26 PM on July 25, 2012

If it helps you to write it, write it. When I was in journalism school, my prof told us that a lot of people choose the pre-written boring obits because they're too overcome with grief. While newspapers keep obits ready for celebs, there's nothing on hand for regular folks. If you think something might happen (grief, stress) and you want to be sure to do it justice, write it now. If your parents are cool with involving you with their legacy/estate planning, bring it up then and see what they'd like to include.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:28 PM on July 25, 2012

It's a good idea, I think. My brother wishes he'd written the eulogy before our (terminally ill) mother died. He struggled with it. And on the upside, I once prepared a funeral powerpoint for a friend's grandma who then spent a great deal of time living afterwards and postponing the need for it - hopefully it won't be needed for a long time, so put it where you can find it.
posted by b33j at 11:00 PM on July 25, 2012

Nthing that if someone is aware of the fact that they're not long for this world that they should most definitely contribute to their own obituary.

After they're dead, how are you going to know how they really feel?

Not to make this about me, but now that I'm getting middle-aged, I'm seeing more of my older relatives dying off, and almost none of them were/are prepared for the final sendoff. Who in their right mind wants a curt, short obituary written by someone who barely knew you. I certainly don't.

My personal advice?

I'm not Australian but HTFU , and have a sit-down with your parents and discuss what they both want and don't want described in their obituaries. I bet there's more than one family secret that they don't want publicized, and more than one thing that you had no clue about that they do.

Back to me, I'm constantly worried that I'm gonna die unexpectedly and one of my cousins will write a trite Twilight-esque obit or god forbid my sister in law gets a hold of it. It's my fucking story. Let me write the end to it. Full fucking stop.
posted by Sphinx at 11:30 PM on July 25, 2012

I did this with my father before he died. I sat with him in the hospital and asked things about his life; mostly stuff I'd heard or remembered, but wanted to get the dates right. When did he graduate from college, when did he live in various cities, etc. I also asked him if there was anything he wanted mentioned. At the same time we talked a bit about his funeral and what sorts of things he would like for a memorial service.

I took some pretty comprehensive notes and edited it down beforehand - I recognized that after he was gone, I'd feel pretty emotional about the whole thing - so that when he did die, I just had to put in the correct end date and that was it. Ultimately I did make some changes to what I'd written, but most of the hard work was done.

This didn't feel morbid to me or my dad - we both tend to be more practical than emotional, and it gave us something to do together, which was nice - but it will depend on your relationship with your parent(s).
posted by dubold at 2:57 AM on July 26, 2012

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