Directing Your Final Exit: Lessons from Nora Ephron about Death and Dying

U.S. director Nora Ephron, left, and U.S. actress Meryl Streep are seen during a photocall for the movie 'Julie and Julia' at the 35th American Film Festival, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009, in Deauville, Normandy, France. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)Nora Ephron once said she wanted everyone at her funeral to be “a basket case.” And they were. From family members to famous celebrities – 800 invited guests, including her ex-husband, Carl Bernstein. But that doesn’t mean humor and heartfelt tributes were absent in the New York good-bye to the journalist-author-screenwriter-produce.... According to news accounts, her son advised the 10 speakers: “Don’t be afraid to be funny.”

But beyond the eulogies and tributes, the Nora stories and Nora-isms, there are some enduring issues that her death has brought to the fore.

Announcing Your Illness

At the memorial service actress Meryl Streep (a close friend who starred in several Ephron films: Silkwood, Heartbreak and Julie & Julia) said she was angry she hadn’t known Nora was sick and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.


The next day on The View, there was much debate about the pros and cons of revealing an illness and/or grim diagnosis. The pros: loving support, lifestyle assistance, and friends and family around you at what could be a very lonely time. The cons (about which co-host Whoopi Goldberg was most vocal): people treat you differently when they know you are sick, all conversations revolve around the prognosis, the treatments and the person-as-patient.


Nora, they agreed, didn’t want people feeling sorry for her, focusing on her disease, or hovering with tributes timed to precede her death. She certainly succeeded in that! And in making sure her “send-off” would be to her liking.


Planning Your Own Funeral

Nora's funeral was planned, to some extent, by Ephron herself who kept a file folder labeled “EXIT” that contained details for her last “party.” In addition to outlining who should be invited to speak, she also included the idea of slipping recipes into the memorial service programs (Penne with Cabbage and Sausage, Egg Salad – her secret was more yolks than whites).


Planning your own send-off is a concept that is increasingly taking hold, especially with baby boomers, who like 1) being in control and 2) having things just so. More and more decisions about invitees, speakers, what music will be played (Nora’s service included “As Time Goes By” and “I’ve Got the World on a String”), and even what beverages will be served (pink champagne to toast Nora!) are being made in advance by the guest of honor.

Nora wrote in one of her books – I think I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts about Being a Woman– about her regret at not discussing death and dying with a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer. The time went too quickly and the friend died a year after the diagnosis without leaving directions about her final wishes.

After reading this, I sent an ObitKit: A Guide to Celebrating Your Life – a workbook I created to make carrying out final wishes easier for loved ones – to Ephron’s office in New York. I doubt she ever saw it, but it seems like she was able to make her own exit plans in her own distinct way. Not everyone is so proactive but, in the wake of Nora’s death, I have heard a good bit of conversation about the advantages of leaving some directives. Even in death, Nora's got everyone talking, laughing, sharing – and planning.


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.

Top Image: U.S. director Nora Ephron, left, and U.S. actress Meryl Streep are seen during a photocall for the movie 'Julie and Julia' at the 35th American Film Festival, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009, in Deauville, Normandy, France. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Second Image: Flickr Creative Commons/-Jérôme-

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