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Having the Last Word: How to Write Your Own Obituary

Spare your survivors the task and take charge of the narrative

​Tom Paul keeps a draft of his obituary in a black binder on a bookshelf in his study. His wife knows it’s there (hers is right beside it), as do his four daughters.​

The 82-year-old from New London, New Hampshire, wants to be prepared.​

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“It’s good to have something like this on hand because you just never know when things are going to go the wrong way in your life,” he says. “And I thought that maybe I'm the best spokesman for myself.”​

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Writing your own obituary has a lot of perks. Presumably, you know yourself best, as Paul says. You could also save your survivors an awful lot of work at a time when they're dealing with grief — or shock if your death is sudden — and are handling funeral arrangements, estates and a host of other practical, unpleasant tasks.​

And being the one to encapsulate your entire existence in (typically) a couple hundred words gives you agency when it comes to one of the last memories you leave behind.​

“The process does require you to think about what’s important and what you want other people to know about you,” Paul says.​

Even then, it can be difficult to distill what information to include. After much reflection and revision, Paul eventually whittled his original version, which came in at 840 words, down to 322 words. While the truncated narrative lists hobbies such as jogging, he struck details including his completion of the 1981 Boston Marathon in three hours and 37 minutes as a “back-of-the-pack bandit.” He also wound up deleting this admission: “Sadly, he failed at golf.”​

Paul did, however, decide to keep one piece of information he says he sees in 90 percent of the obituaries he reads — that he “died peacefully.”​

Writing a meaningful obituary

Margo Steiner, who leads virtual obituary-writing workshops, has seen interest in the topic grow over the last decade as the death-positive movement has gained ground. People are talking more openly about the end of life — and accepting that death is, in fact, going to happen.​

“More people are beginning to think that when they die, they want to have control over what's said about them,” says Steiner, 72, of Marblehead, Massachusetts. She has heard stories from several workshop participants that, when relying on funeral homes to piece together a spouse’s obituary, the end result was riddled with punctuation and factual errors. “They’re thinking, ‘I can do this better myself.’”​

In her classes, Steiner covers the history of obituaries (Benjamin Franklin wrote one for a favorite squirrel), common elements of a typical obituary (names of family members, schooling, etc.), what information to leave out (addresses, for example, as a security and identity precaution), and how to make an obit feel personal.​

Steiner suggests being open to humor and vulnerability, both of which resonate with readers.​

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“They see that this was a human being who lived and loved and did things,” she says. “A regular, straightforward obituary just can't do that.”​

One thing to keep in mind is that you can return to your draft at any time for updating. Steiner recommends taking a fresh look every year.​

“You don't have to be who you are right now,” she says. “Something that was initially important may no longer be. Eliminate it. A new passion may emerge or a new commitment to a community or global undertaking. Add that. You can think of your obituary as a fluid document.”​

A gift for the grieving

Gene Hardwick didn’t realize that his wife, Zola, had written her own obituary until after she died this past August. The funeral home told him that his wife of 52 years had not only taken care of that task, but had chosen music for her celebration of life service and worked out every other detail so that he wouldn’t be burdened while grieving.​

As for the obituary, “it gave me a big relief to realize that the right words were there and that I did not have to suffer to regurgitate from memory,” says Hardwick, 80, who lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, where the couple spent their retirement years.​

Aside from listing her careers as a travel agent, teacher and writer, the right words included that she “had a great laugh and loved to be social,” and that “she lived her life with the motto, ‘carpe diem’ in mind … and seized every day of her life to its fullest.”​

Hardwick enjoyed hearing friends compliment his wife’s words — words that called him “the love of her life” and were a gift of sorts during a tough time.​

“I considered it a joy to read about my lifemate from her perspective,” he says.​

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A ‘celebratory’ thing to do

Mary Ellen Markant, a nurse educator in her 70s living in Ogden, New York, says her motive for writing her own obituary comes from wanting to share the nuances of her time here on earth.​

“I feel like I can tap into very personal experiences and maybe even enlighten the people who are close to me — and it's a way to appreciate my own life,” she explains.​

Markant adds stories to a file on her desktop every now and then when the mood strikes, when a memory or anecdote with the potential to make it into the final version of her obituary surfaces.​

“I don't like the idea of designating a block of time to sit down and write my own obituary,” she says. “To me, that sounds like an assignment in an English course.”​

Instead, she approaches the writing as a time of reflection. Markant has documented milestones, including where she honeymooned, and tales from childhood, including the time she colluded with her uncle to sneak a kitten into her home in a burlap bag (which worked until her parents heard the cat meow).​

Markant finds it fun to revisit what she’s written. Whenever she makes an addition, she reads over what she has gathered so far.​

“It’s entertaining,” she says. “Writing an obituary, to me, is not a sad thing to do. It feels kind of celebratory. My life has been good. Some things have been off, but when I see all these different elements blended together, I feel an appreciation. ​

“I get a kick out of reliving my life.”

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