Why You, Dear Writer, Should Write Your Own Obituary

“[An obituary] is almost never about death. It’s about the life.”

~ Margalit Fox, Obituary Writer for The New York Times 

If you don’t write your own obituary, someone else will.

If you are a well-known writer, they will anyway, but at least you will have your own say about your life that will endure after you slip under the sod.

If you are an unknown, like I am, getting your life story out on the web helps to immortalize you to your family and three fans, that is, until your website also slips into the ether. Let’s just hope that the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive) deems you important enough to capture your website pages.

I wrote my first obituary for a college-level Death and Dying class. It was a required assignment, so there was no getting out of it. It felt creepy; I was just 34, and death seemed eons away. But I decided that if I had to do it, I was going to do it like gang busters, pouring my heart and soul into it. So I did; I wrote it as if I had already died, because as we all know, 34 year olds do, sadly, die. Because I was so young, I had a lot of regrets and tons of unfinished business, hopes and dreams unfulfilled. I simply was not ready for The Big Sleep.

I was 63 when I wrote my second obituary, which recapped the first and added what had happened in the ensuing years ꟷ what got fulfilled, what remained unfulfilled, and what turned out to be twists and turns in my life. Of course, I still wasn’t fond of the idea of dying just yet… Are we ever?

In many ways, my younger obituary seems sadder than my older one; at 63, I felt more resigned to the fact that I had more life behind me than ahead of me. In other words, I had begun to accept the inevitability of the life cycle. But as a young person, I figured that death was something to be contemplated in the far future.

It will soon be time to write my third obituary; I’m not sure that I have much to add, mostly family updates.

Professionally, not much has happened ꟷ perhaps I have become resigned that I will never become The Famous Writer I once aspired to. While we don’t always get what we want, we mostly get what we need, and I feel that my writing needs are being adequately fulfilled ꟷ I have a lot of writing irons in the fire, perhaps too many.

Unfinished Books:

And God Laughed (not much there, to be honest, but an early attempt to create a website. Blogger, too, was elementary in those days, in early 2008. I really want to get back to this story, and I will, because the main character is old and facing mortality, and so am I.) 

The Bride of Christ (finished, but not revised, no website)

Corpus Delicious (website, but incomplete text offline)

The Fat Lady Sings (website, some completed chapters)

Fat Woman Walking

Luna Drive (website, but not much there and a bit of a mess, so never mind)

Peep Central (website, but text offline, another never mind)

More than enough to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

I have also spent the past few months reworking my two main websites: this one and MemoirMadness.com, moving items from NewMemoir.com, a rather busy-looking early website, to Memoir Madness.

I have discovered something new while working on this project: while I always knew that Google penalizes for duplicate content, I did not know that the Big G dislikes broken links (404 errors) even more, so part of this project consisted of digging old New Memoir posts out of draft mode, truncating them, adding links for the moved posts, and reinstating the old posts. Now when “regular visitors” (ha) return to New Memoir, they no longer will encounter broken links, and Google will be happy. I only found out my gaffe when Google let me know in no uncertain terms that I had done a bad thing by slipping my New Memoir posts into draft mode.

Mea Culpa, Google: I’m not all that technical.

Perhaps my third obituary will be more contemplative and philosophical ꟷ I don’t know. It’s still a germ of an idea.

In a way, my nonfiction is part of my obituary. Memoir Madness (published and available on Amazon) is about my wasted youth, and Fat Woman Walking (unpublished, but chapters posted as drafts) is about my struggles with weight. However, with Fat Woman Walking, I have come to a bit of an impasse because I don’t struggle as much anymore, so it’s difficult to proceed with this topic.

Okay, then, enough about me, now to the meat of this essay.

Where do you begin when creating your own obituary?

You will be creating what is known as an “advance obituary.” All the major newspapers have created advance obituaries for all famous people, even young celebrities, because you never know when Death will come calling. Those wonderfully detailed obituaries don’t get written at the last minute ꟷ when needed, they are simply updated with recent information, such as date of death, phone interviews with survivors, and cause of death (if available), info not yet available for living subjects. See Dave Davies’s Fresh Air (NPR) interview with obituary writers Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox.

It might be a good idea to read some sample New York Times (this NYT link will lead to the most recent obituary, and it may lead to a pay wall) obituaries of dead celebrities to get an idea of how advance obituaries are structured as journalistic pieces, but when writing your own story, all rules and bets are merely suggestions; after all, this is your story, and you get to tell it the way you want to tell it.

Your advance obituary, then, will be a mostly positive compilation of your accomplishments, your hopes and dreams, perhaps some regrets. In addition to your professional life, you might want to discuss your relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, fur babies, rock collection, etc. Whatever interests you.

I have decided that my advance obituaries would offer positive feelings about my loved ones and ignore snark about my enemies (very few, actually) because that’s how I want to leave this world, but you may feel differently. Again, your choice. If you decide to wield an ax over those who have harmed you, well, you won’t be around for the consequences, will you? It just depends how you feel about your words affecting others you might not want to hurt (Actually, I had to consider these very issues when I wrote Memoir Madness.)

Humor? Yes, please! I tried to weave a bit of humor in my advance obituaries, but I’m not an over-the-top humorist, but you may be. I have several Facebook friends who love telling punny and funny jokes; I can only imagine how their advance obituaries might read. Just keep the living laughing!

Writing your own obituary is the chance to tell your life the way you want others to see you when you were alive.

There really are no set-in-stone rules for writing your advance obituary.


Just write it!


Link to Jennifer’s Advanced Obituary


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