There’s a maxim in journalism that goes roughly like this: “The average person is guaranteed of getting his name in the paper twice in his lifetime – when he’s born and when he dies. Don’t screw either of those up.”
For many of us, our public legacies reside in the obituaries that appear in print a day or two after our death. Hopefully, our families and others close to us will keep us in their hearts beyond that date, but those newsprint tributes are often the last written chapter to our life story.
The late British writer Quentin Crisp once said, “An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.”
I encourage people in my legacy letter writing classes to write their own obituaries. When faced with the challenge of condensing your life to 250 words or so it forces you to focus on those things most important to you. That focus is critical in writing a legacy letter or ethical will and is a good starting point for a full-blown personal history.
Plus, in these days of paid death notices, it’s important to document your life story in such a way that truly reflects your life as succinctly as possible.
I attended a workshop on obituary writing at the recent national conference of the Association of Personal Historians. Prize-winning obituary writers Larken Bradley (The Point Reyes Light), Alana Baranick (Cleveland Plain Dealer) and Kay Powell (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) lamented the paid-obituary trend and represented the finest of what is something of a dying breed at U.S. newspapers, the professional obituary writer.
Fortunately, APH members like myself can provide the same services that newspapers are abandoning. There’s also help available on line. Check out Obit magazine or the Obituary Forum run by Alana. She’s also co-written a guide to obituary writing, “Life on the Death Beat.”