Is a "write your own obituary" workshop worthwhile?
December 4, 2020 1:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in (virtually) attending a workshop in which participants write their own obituaries. I'd be interested to know if you've done this and, if so, whether you think it's a worthwhile exercise.

The premise is explained nicely in this 2019 Washington Post article. There is a passage in that article that particularly resonates with me:

For the middle-aged and younger participants, writing their own obituaries can be a forward-looking exercise. Jill Eckart, 40, says, “I took it as an opportunity to create what might be possible in the next half of my life. I have about hopefully 45 to 50 more years left. With the end in mind, what do I want that space to look like?”

I'm attracted to this approach because I like the concise, focused nature of most obituaries. I'd view this exercise as a way to distill my life - both that portion that's behind me and that portion yet to come - to its essence. As someone of middle age, this presumably would include a mix of my life experience to date as well as my hopes, wishes, and dreams for the remainder of my life.

Candidly, the main thrust of the exercise for me would be to start to discern personal and professional guidelines, milestones, goals, and parameters for the rest of my life. My life thus far has been consumed with education, work, and, most critically important to me, raising my children. With my kids starting to fly from the nest, I'm in a phase of reassessment and trying to figure out what will come next. If there are exercises to reassess one's purpose in midlife other than an obituary-writing workshop that you think might be more helpful, that would be great information to have, too.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
posted by cheapskatebay to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
At the risk of turning everything into late capitalism, this reminds me a little of Amazon's process of writing the press release for a non-existent product first and then working backwards. The reasons for this are discussed in that article. Not my cup of tea, but it appears to work for them.
posted by caek at 1:32 PM on December 4, 2020

I've written my obit twice, once as a journalism student in my teens, and much more recently as a "get ready for death" exercise. While my first obit helped a little in kick-starting my thinking about what my life would look like, it was written from a point of sheer fantasy. I'm closer to your phase of life now and I don't think an obit writing workshop is the first thing I would choose to accomplish what you're looking for. Have you thought about working with a career counselor? That said, I think writing your own obit is a great life exercise and certainly wouldn't obscure new ideas or paths of purpose. You could write one on your own first, see if you felt like it was worthwhile, and then sign up for the workshop if it provoked some good thinking.

The article you linked to makes me want to check in on Chris: “Chris lost his life in a car accident on November 1st, 2020, nine days before his birthday. He was 75.”
posted by cocoagirl at 1:43 PM on December 4, 2020

A similar exercise is in the first chapter of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", and it really resonates with some people. Alongside "begin with the end in mind", the goal is to open up your mind to the possibilities and what it would take to achieve what you want to achieve.
posted by wnissen at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thinking back to when my grandmother died, there was all kinds of drama about who was going to write the obituary and what should or shouldn’t be included. In the end, what ended up in the paper was pretty embarrassingly bad. I would have loved if she had been able to write something in advance to avoid the mess.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:37 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in a "Living Funeral" ceremony, which I did virtually earlier this year. "The ceremony is an invitation to connect deeply with the mystery and richness of one’s life. It is an opportunity to reflect on the past, evaluate the present and prepare for the future."

I'll have to say that doing the ceremony alone in my bedroom via Zoom felt pretty isolating and I can imagine that doing it in a space where there are other actual humans would have been more meaningful, but YMMV.
posted by rogerroger at 5:08 PM on December 4, 2020

Start writing your memoirs now. I felt like I wasn't old enough to write memoirs when I was younger, now I've forgotten half of everything.
posted by ovvl at 5:29 PM on December 4, 2020

This is a common ACT therapy exercise, for what it’s worth. It’s supposed to help you crystallize what you want your life to be about or in service of. I’ve done it before, and while it didn’t sharpen me down to some kind of sword of pure life purpose or anything, it did clarify some things for me and I found it useful.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:35 PM on December 4, 2020

The workshop sounds great, and what have you got to lose?

That said, you wrote: "Candidly, the main thrust of the exercise for me would be to start to discern personal and professional guidelines, milestones, goals, and parameters for the rest of my life... If there are exercises to reassess one's purpose in midlife other than an obituary-writing workshop that you think might be more helpful, that would be great information to have, too."

This sounds like great and important work!! Do it! There are a million books and resources and workshops that can help with that.

One book I've been reading and enjoying recently is Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. It is not specifically designed for mid-life, but would work as well for mid-life as any stage. They also have a workbook with exercises....
posted by ManInSuit at 7:37 PM on December 4, 2020

Here's an article specifically about Design your Life in midlife...
posted by ManInSuit at 7:39 PM on December 4, 2020

Are you more of a planner or more of a discoverer? I stumbled on those descriptions in the context of writing recently, planners being the kinds of writers who prefer to have notes and research and an outline and everything before they start, discoverers being the kinds of writers who prefer to start and see where the stories & characters take them.

The distinction helped clarify something I've known about myself for a while but not in as many words: that I'm a discoverer when it comes to life. The idea of having a fixed plan or objective to strive towards makes me feel weird on some level. All of the most interesting things that have happened to me were things I couldn't have planned, and often things that I couldn't have even imagined doing or trying until I'd done them. I have a very poor imagination for the future, and life consistently surprises me by being better and more interesting than anything I could have imagined.

My question to you in this context is whether you're a planner or a discoverer. This kind of activity sounds like a good fit for planners, but as a discoverer it doesn't sound like something I'd get a ton of value from myself, because I already know I prefer to be surprised by whatever life has in store for me and I would really struggle to imagine how the next 40-odd years of my life might go in a way that would hold meaning for me and shape my actions between now and then.

You know yourself best, though, so if you're intrigued by the idea (and you've experienced value from similar planning and future ideation exercises in the past, if you've ever tried any), why not give it a go?
posted by terretu at 1:51 AM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

At 68 I’m way too long in the tooth to do this as some sort of “life planning” exercise. While certainly no life expert, I’ve lived enough of it to believe it kind of arrogant / wishful thinking to presume that the randomness of situations, circumstances, occurrences, etc. will meekly step aside in favor of the prescriptions set forth in my advance obituary. Especially one written in my 40s or 30s or, God help us, my 20s. As for Covey, I only vaguely recall the training I had maybe 30 years ago — isn’t the first habit visualizing people talking about you at your funeral and planning your life so they’ll say nice things? Or something. Like that can be controlled, or even, dare I say it, matters?

That said, I have in fact written my own obituary, having gone through the exercises after the deaths of my mother, father-in-law, and grandson. I did it to control at least that part of the narrative. It’s down to 300 words now and, at the rate I’m finding things to cut, pretty soon it’ll be reduced to something like “But enough about me.” My will etc requires that it appear exactly as written, every jot and tittle.
posted by charris5005 at 1:49 PM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

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