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When you die, what will your obituary say? Leave it to others and you might get boilerplate: cause of death, biography, survivors and where to send donations. Wouldn’t you rather have your life story told the way you’d like it?
Susan Soper of Atlanta certainly would — and that’s one of the reasons she developed the ObitKit, a handbook that offers a step-by-step process for creating a rich and personal obituary. (It also helps people plan their own funeral or memorial service).
Soper, who blogs for the obituary website Legacy.com, believes a growing number of boomers are writing their own exit lines. “Baby boomers like to be in control,” she says. “They know what they want, and they want it the way they want it. Plus I think our generation has more of a celebrate-your-life mentality.”
But how do you compose your own final send-off? Soper herself, for example, needed several stabs to fill out the very ObitKit she devised. Luckily, help abounds. Consider these options:
- Take a class: Larken Bradley, an obit writer for the West Marin Citizen, teaches adult ed workshops north of San Francisco for $25. An online class at the Story Circle Network costs about $120. Obit-writing classes are individual, entrepreneurial efforts, so you’ll have to search the Web to find a class near you. You can also send a query to the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, a group of newspaper reporters with a passion for the craft — and a sense of humor about their undertaking (ha ha!), which they describe as “for folks who write about the dead for a living.”
- Hire a professional obit writer: They aren’t large in number, but you can find obit writers for hire — among them former entertainment reporter Katharine Blossom Lowrie. Soper and Bradley, too, write “custom” obits. Soper’s final version of an obituary will set you back $200 to $500 or more; Bradley charges $125 an hour. Writing styles range widely, so read sample obits before signing up any hired gun.
- Use the ObitKit: As Soper points out, you needn’t actually write your obituary. But answer the questions in this kit and you’ll be able to leave behind a sort of rough draft of your life.
- Follow a template: @Legacy provides a suggested format; a site called ObitNow.com offers a fill-in-the-blank template. Tributes.com is beta-testing a template with funeral directors that would be included in “pre-need” plans, through which people prepay their funerals.
- Consider an online memorial: A growing number of sites are transforming the traditional obit into a multimedia remembrance. Tributes.com, which powers the websites of hundreds of funeral homes, is one of the larger ones. Online memorials are also increasingly found on the websites of individual funeral homes.
- Find an app: On Facebook, you can light a virtual memorial candle for a loved one, check out numerous 9/11 memorial pages and leave condolences for the most digital of the recently deceased: as of this writing, almost 18,000 people had “liked” Steve Jobs’ memorial Facebook page.
- Finally, do it yourself with tips from the pros. If you want your story to catch the attention of the newspaper reporters who choose the characters they’ll eulogize, advises former obit writer Alana Baranick, start with information that best identifies you: Were you known for running marathons? Or fostering 30 kids? (Your own obit is actually a “death notice,” which newspapers charge a fee to publish. Obituaries written by a newspaper staffer are considered journalism and cannot be purchased.)
- Avoid “I was born in …” chronology. To get more personal, try answering some of Soper’s favorite questions:
- Which three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?
- What do you consider the highlight of your life apart from your children and career?
- Learn how the experts do it: Read Baranick’s Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers coauthored by Stephen Miller and Jim Sheeler, or Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. The latter — an homage to the obituary as art form — manages to be both sensitive and hysterical.
Veteran freelance writer and public radio reporter Elaine Grant lives in Strafford, N.H. Her work has appeared on NPR and the PBS NewsHour, as well as in U.S. News & World Report, Inc. Magazine, Fortune Small Business and CNNMoney.
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