Should I write guidelines for my obituary?
November 30, 2012 6:18 AM   Subscribe

Should I write guidelines for my obituary?

I read obituaries in my local newspapers regularly, and I have thought about how I would want mine written when the time comes. However, I am in my 20s. I'm wondering if I should write some guidelines/things to avoid for whoever may be responsible for writing it.

Some phrases commonly used in obits bother me. First, phrases like "passed away" and "went to be with his lord and savior". I am not religious, not saying I never would be, but I'd like my obit to just say that I "died". Second, things along the lines of "he was a lifelong area resident". At this point, I have lived in the same town most (not all) of my life, and still live there (reluctantly). Not saying there's anything wrong with living in your hometown, that phrase just irks me. It has negative connotations to me.

I also have concerns if my hobbies and interests are inaccurately remembered. Or if jobs/employment is put in there, since as mentioned, I have underachieved and have been underemployed. That's more of a concern if I die in the near future.

I certainly hope that I live long enough and productively to have no concerns on my obit. This is just more of a short-term concern, just in case.
posted by lankford to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno -- once you're gone, will you still be caring?

Or, less flipply, (1) you have no idea how your interests and notable achievements will change, and it would start to feel obsessive to update this all the time, and (2) obituaries, like funerals, are for the living left behind, so what matters is how they remember you, not what you consider the "right" version of your life.

Just my two cents. Plus, plan to live a lot longer! :)
posted by acm at 6:24 AM on November 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

It might bring you some peace of mind, but you'll be gone, you officially have a right to not care anymore.

People are likely to haggle over the obituary with or without your suggestions, and that is assuming the person(s) you've made your directives known to have the presence of mind to remember them, strength of character to pull them out, and tenaciousness to force them through. All of which are usually thrown out the window when grieving.
posted by BLuR at 6:26 AM on November 30, 2012

Write your own.

Then expect the possibility that people will forget about it unless you have pre-planned the rest of your funeral.

Then expect to never find out about it.

Obits are paid by the word, so be efficient and're spending other people's money at that point.
posted by inturnaround at 6:30 AM on November 30, 2012 [13 favorites]

Go for it. You can also discuss it with someone close to you, the person who might end up dealing with all that stuff in the event of your death. You could hand them a sealed envelope with "in the event of my death" on it, spelling out your wishes, or you could go see a lawyer and get everything in order.

Even when you're young, the more you can set up ahead of time the better off everyone will be if/when you die. When my father-in-law died, he had all his affairs in order and we didn't have to think about anything, we were just left to grieve. He even had his obituary fully written (except for a few minor updates we added at the end) and kept with his lawyer. It was so nice to not have to deal with that, to argue over how it should be written, or to worry that we were missing out on some detail of his life. His final gift to us was making his death as easy as it could have been.

And it's true you might be dead and it will no longer matter to you, but the people close to you will care, and will most likely worry about whether or not they're doing the right thing. Make it easy for them.

But yeah, maybe assure them that you have no plans to die any time soon, you're just being practical.
posted by bondcliff at 6:30 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Look, no matter how old you are, it is the responsible thing to do to have a will and instructions for your executor, updated about every five years or so. It would be ridiculous to write guidelines for your obituary if you didn't have a will or other instructions, but if you do, just slip a little note in about obituary guidelines in with the other stuff.
posted by corb at 6:37 AM on November 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

Many people have written their own obituaries. Some of them even have a little fun with it. It's a chance to make sure things are said the way you want them said. Just keep in mind that once you are gone, someone still might ignore what you did and write their own version for public consumption.
posted by Longtime Listener at 6:38 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding writing your own. You've listed the things that you don't want it to say ... go ahead and put down what you do want it to say.
posted by headnsouth at 6:39 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Write your obituary and keep it up to date along with your CV and family tree. Maintain it online for everyone to read now. This will force you to write for the public and maybe encourage you to do some things you want to be able to say you did.

Don't be afraid to make it too long; your relatives will love to read the extended version and they can trim it down to a usable length when you kick the bucket.

Where you worked, what you did, etc. Spouse or "SO" or whatever term you prefer. List of relatives. Everything of note that you've done. Languages you speak, sports and hobbies you practice, favorite pastimes, favorite things. Places you've been. What you're most proud of having done (or not done). Greatest regrets.
posted by pracowity at 6:53 AM on November 30, 2012

It depends on how your local paper does things -- you can call them and ask -- but most accept obit submissions. So who would be writing your obit? Your mother? Your brother? Would they say something religious about you? I wrote my Dad's obit with the help of my mom's exhaustive summary of his life's accomplishments. We did not get flowery with "heaven" imagery though did note his longtime religious affiliation. So call up your local rag and ask what their obit policy is -- do they accept submissions or will they write them themselves? Is there a word limit or cost? You can tell them you're doing research for your family.
posted by amanda at 6:56 AM on November 30, 2012

I think if you write your own, it's a memoir, not an obituary.

You can set out whatever stipulations you like about your own funeral - it's an agreeable way to pass a bit of time and generally harmless. Reviewing your own life from a 'posthumous' perspective may even be salutary. But obituaries don't really belong to you and attempts to lay down rules for them are futile and possibly bad form. Think of them as being like theatre reviews, except that it's the final curtain they follow.
posted by Segundus at 7:11 AM on November 30, 2012

Newspaper obits tend to be written to a template. The family provides certain details and the paper plugs items in.

Here's a big thing to keep in mind...Newspaper obits aren't automatic or free. Your name will appear automatically in any "Death Notice" list the paper runs, but, if your survivors want an obit in the newspaper, it will cost them. Cost depends on length and whether there is a photograph. We discovered this back when my MIL died and it cost my FIL something like $200-300 to have an obit w/photo run. Everyone involved assumed obits were gratis. That was a big surprise.

If you insist on a custom-written obit, expect your survivors to have to shell-out big bucks.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:16 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't address the obit, come to think of it, but I maintain an ah-shit envelope that my closest know the location of, in the event I'm hit by a truck (again). It would fit right in with that, and you wouldn't even have to discuss it in advance with anyone.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:16 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think obit costs depend on length entirely, not whether you followed some template. There's a template because most people call the paper and say "I need an obit. What should it say?"

Kinda like the story of a woman who called a paper in a small town and said "I need to put in an obit for my husband. He died yesterday."

"I'm sorry about that. Obituaries are ten cents a word. I'll copy down whatever you want in there."

"Ten cents a word? Just say: 'Fred died.'"

"There's a five word minimum."

"Fred died. Truck for sale."

// I'll be here all week...
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:20 AM on November 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

I think more importantly, you should make peace with your choices in life. And maybe stop reading obituaries if it causes you angst. But yes, write your own if that brings you some comfort.
posted by valeries at 7:25 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's some confusion here between obituaries (which are news articles) and death notices (whcih are paid advertisements).

"Death notices are notices of death that are placed in the newspaper by family members or funeral homes. They can include as much or as little information as the family would like to supply. Since there is a fee charged for their publication and they are not prepared by news reporters, these notices are considered paid advertisements by the newspaper industry. Obituary articles (news obituaries) are prepared by reporters, include a biographical sketch of the deceased, and are subject to the editorial process of the newspaper in which they appear."

I don't know if some smaller and less financially stable newspapers might be starting to merge the two, but members of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers would not be happy if you tried to write your own obituary - any more than a crime writer would be pleased by a criminal (or the family of a criminal) expecting to write the article about his trial.

No personal knowledge; everything I know about the obituary business I learned from Carl Hiaasen's novel Basket Case.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:26 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Those things in the paper are typically written by a family memeber. Rather than write your own, charge someone to be in charge of this for you, should it be required in the event of your untimely demise.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:31 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exactly what Longtime Listener said: I also have known people to write their own, but due to length/cost and family preference, keep in mind that someone might decide to edit it before sending. I empathize with the urge to write this yourself—everyone secretly wants their live biographied, right? But do realize that this is a major control thing. YOU WILL BE DEAD. I'm pretty sure you won't care if someone forgot to list kayaking under your hobbies. Maybe consider if your bigger concern is your relationships and how people remember you, right now.

But if you do write your own, you should make it really juicy. Who will know otherwise—you will be dead!
posted by Eicats at 7:47 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the ritual and ceremony surrounding death in our culture - wakes, funerals, burials, obituaries, etc. - are not for the benefit of the dead. They are for the benefit of those who survive you.

Insisting on being remembered a certain way, or setting "rules" about how you will be remembered does a serious disservice to your friends and loved ones. Let them remember you how they choose to remember you.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:19 AM on November 30, 2012

Put it in your will along with everything else you want people to know/do after you're gone.
posted by empath at 8:36 AM on November 30, 2012

Yes. Keep it taped to your forehead. Make sure you include a curse on anybody who violates your wishes.

Wait, you said you are in your twenties? Let's see, this is almost 2013. If you make it to your nineties you'll see the 2070's. I'm not sure they'll still have obituaries then. Jeez, in 50 years they may not even still allow people to die. Just in case, though, I guess you could encode your wishes on the microchip you'll probably have under your mastoid process, and I'm sure the coroner's office will post it to YOU TUBE before they shoot your ashes off to the asteroid belt: or whateverthehell they'll be doing in those days. You can do the Disney method, and make a movie of yourself (or pay an actor) giving the highlights of your life. Make sure you get galley-rights, or whatever it's called, to edit the result before its loaded onto the chip.

In the meantime keep your insurance is paid up, and see that your will is renewed every few years. This will encourage your survivors to speak kindly about you at the wake.

In the will, include notes about cremation, organ donations, who gets the cat, and the like. I plan to have a friend speak at my memorial, reminding everyone that I never really liked bacon, but I ate it just to annoy my first ex-wife.
posted by mule98J at 8:36 AM on November 30, 2012

I'd list some stuff you want included, and then let the writers handle it when the time comes. I myself will do that at some point.
posted by jgirl at 9:23 AM on November 30, 2012

A friend who is in no imminent danger of dying gave me his death notice to run in the local paper. He figured I was the reliable, responsible adult who'd take care of it. (He gave a slightly different version to his brother to run in their hometown paper.) It's ready to go except for the death date!

As someone who loves to read a good obituary or death notice, I've often mentally drafted my own -- not to make myself sound heroic or valuable, but to amuse the hell out of people after I'm gone, even if they never met me.

As far as listing your career achievements, it's no fun to read a long list of "And then he worked at Widgets Inc. and won the Widget Achievement Trophy 17 years running." I'd much rather read about your flea circus or collection of wooden nickels, or the time you misdialed your mom's number and ended up talking to Burt Reynolds, who invited you to his birthday party.

I also dig Kinky Friedman's expression "stepped on a rainbow" to describe dying. "Slipped away" sounds like you were late for a meeting.
posted by vickyverky at 10:53 AM on November 30, 2012

I'm with you on preferring "died" to the cutesy euphemisms. But depending on the newspaper in question and/or how adamantly they stick to AP style, the newspaper might not allow anyone to use those words. If you're lucky.

But realistically speaking, you don't have control over this situation once you're dead, and anyone can do whatever the hell they want over your dead body...
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:15 AM on November 30, 2012

My grandmother (who's a young grandmother, in good health, etc.) occasionally reads the news paper too much and then tells me these little guidelines for her obituary/death notice/speech at the funeral/what have you for when she does. I wish she'd write them down, because I'm never going to remember it all as is, or yes--better yet--write her own things.

In conclusion, it's certainly weird, but you've got company in being weird so it's OK.
posted by anaelith at 11:53 AM on November 30, 2012

It is worth remembering that death notices get written a couple of days after the death, so any instructions in the will or whatever probably won't get looked at in time. So, it's important that whoever is likely to be in the position of sorting all of this out needs to know in advance. For example, when it came to writing my mother's death notice, I insisted on "died" rather than "passed away" because I knew that she had no truck with that sort of euphemism, not because of any explicit spoken or written discussion about the issue.
posted by Jabberwocky at 7:56 AM on December 2, 2012

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