Ever since I had to write my dad’s obituary in the middle of the night with no resources at hand, I’ve been an inveterate and appreciative consumer of obits. I read them in newspapers, in magazines, online and even in books (see 52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas, an incredibly creative compilation of posthumous profiles). I clip them, email them, excerpt them and, always, learn from them. Sadly, I often discover amazing attributes about people I thought I knew a lot about – until they die and their obit reveals something startling, impressive, erudite or quirky I wish I could talk to them about. Too late.
Well, too late it may be for conversation with that person but an obituary is still an enduring record and one which could spark discussions among friends and strangers alike. I can’t even guess how many times a friend has said, “Did you read the obit about….?” – and how many times I’ve gone back to dig out that particular “story.”
The reality is, these days every obit can be a story. The days of the “just the facts, ma’m” have been eclipsed by an almost fervor to pay tribute to a loved one with more personal and colorful items that will keep them alive in memory and spirit.
I used to wonder, Who writes these things and how did they come by so much detailed information? Having written many myself now – most as a labor of love for friends – I know some of the answers. Some people keep multiple files on themselves and hire professional obit writers to tell their stories; family members gather dates, facts and intimate details when the time draws near; other friends and loved ones are paralyzed from planning ahead until death has occurred. Some leave it to the funeral homes and their standardized forms to recount the basics of a life story. And, these days, it’s also not uncommon for someone to write their own “final résumé.”
Having sat with grieving spouses and children, capturing their memories on my computer to forward to our local paper, I have seen how much a collaborative effort can add to the final product.
Obits now go far beyond education, military service, professional accomplishments and survivors. Nowadays, obits often include pets (a beloved dog, Boomer), special skills (crossword puzzles, exceptional pancakes), hobbies (skateboarding, Cuban culture, growing dahlias), traits (a disdain for namedroppers), interesting descriptors (“a firecracker!” or “a rough-cut diamond”), adventures (a 72-day camping trip with three teenage children), eccentricities (ordering from infomercials, saving a pair of nylons from World War II) and skeletons (being related to George Washington and Alexander Hamilton).
Yes, all of those tidbits appeared in obits I’ve clipped. They are the essence of what brings a person to life – and keeps them lively – whether in print or online. They are what make us smile or tear up when we read them. In my case, even if I didn’t know the person! That’s just how powerful obituaries have become.
Here is one of my all time favorites – the only one I can remember with an actual title:
A Life Without Furniture. Check it out.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.
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