Writing an Obituary With Help From Ralph Waldo Emerson

Each New Year many of us start thinking about resolutions: Lose weight and gain insight, spend less and save more, clean closets or drawers (I did that last year, well more than 100 of them – they add up!), work less – or maybe more, exercise your body or your rights.

Increasingly joining that list is the resolve to write down – or at least talk about – end-of-life wishes and to leave directives for friends and family. So many details large and small must be decided on quickly and with assurance when someone dies. Many don't realize the pain of it until they are put through it, and that often increases one’s determination not to leave anyone else the bewilderment of figuring out what a recently deceased love one would have wanted.

Obituaries are just one of many things that have to be decided on: details hastily gathered and written up in varying degrees of preplanning or posthumous scrambling. Once a person is gone there is often no reliable reference for dates, facts and feelings about what was truly important to that person.

As an obituary writer, one of the things I often hear is: "Oh, my life isn’t very interesting. There won’t be much to tell about me. I haven’t done anything significant."

Not so! Everyone has a story. And every story deserves to be told.

True, some are grander than others, filled with career accomplishments and titles, awards, recognition, etc. But more often it is the details of one's everyday life that strikes a chord with the obituary readers and the deceased’s friends and family: a habit or hobby, a relationship with a child or friend, a long-held tradition, a life-changing trip or encounter, a habitual dedication to a cause for celebration.

Too often in this society/century/civilization success is measured by money, stature, toys or progeny. But when you stop to ponder what has really mattered, there is so much else out there.

A passage by Ralph Waldo Emerson – the American essayist and writer (1803-1882) – has guided and inspired me for decades in its simple, straightforward definition of success. I have often passed it along to others who don’t think they are really making a difference or accomplishing life’s goals, hoping they will see how the most basic pieces of our lives add up to glorious purpose. And, yes, success.

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.


If one were to deconstruct this passage, line by line, it could serve as a useful guide for what to include in an obit that is meaningful. Try a few lines of it and think about how they point the way:


To laugh often and much: What brought delight and happiness over the course of a life? What simple pleasures, meaningful moments, even silly ones? Obituaries often cite events, people, circumstances that stand out as humorous.

To earn the appreciation of honest critics…: What was most admirable about the person – or yourself? What traits or characteristics shone the most? Not just hardworking and sincere but nowadays skills in cooking, gardening, athletics, cultural hobbies.


To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others: What parts of this world – whether in books, art, music or travels – most moved this person? Often obituaries these days include favorite books and cultural pastimes – museums, concerts, crossword puzzles, even – appreciated over a lifetime.


To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition: Whether a lifetime of parenting or the annual planting of daffodil bulbs, the giving of blood on a regular basis, volunteering with a community group, donating to a favorite cause – any of these would qualify as making a valuable contribution to our world.


It would prove hard to find a life that could not be told in an interesting, uplifting way – or maybe not! – using these few lines. The important thing is to think broadly and specifically, as well as creatively, when trying to capture your life or another's.


Emerson knew the components of success and can help us record our own.


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. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons / VinothChandar



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