Summing up a life – Part 2

In writing my blog entry of the other day, which focused on my semi-obsession with reading the obituaries of people I don’t know, I discovered several links that one may find helpful when, shall we say, the time comes.

My research turned up this wonderful quote from Jim Nicholson, then with Philadelphia Daily News: “…every person is a lead obit. There are no unimportant obits.” The quote can be found at the online magazine obit, whose section “Mourning Roundup” asks the question, “Why is Seth Rogen in so many cancer comedies?” Note to self: maybe don’t linger on this topic too long.

Seth Rogen aside, it’s an important point. Whether you’re Steve Jobs (whose life story has been one of the stories in the past several days) or Steve Prior (whose 2010 obituary noted that he had recently toured with a band from Scotland called “Little Buddha”), your story should be worth reading because it’s already worth telling.

In fact, early birds (read here: control freaks) can get started now, well before the death knell sounds. Using the website Obituary, you can craft your own obituary, and, in the words of the website writer, “…know that you have had your say.” And for those in the group who find it hard to get projects across the finish line, the website advises, “Don’t put off writing your own obituary because it seems too big to finish. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to worry about finishing it!”

Some tips for autobiographical obituary from Obituary (my comments in parentheses):

  • Harvest ideas from other people’s obits (it’s not plagiarism, I guess…plus they can’t sue you when they’re dead)


  • Sum up your life in three to six words a la a Twitter or Facebook post (but please, for the love of everything holy, do not mention coffee or your migraines!)


  • Be an inspiration…to yourself! (Remember our friend Hank Zimmerman? His lovely obit read, “Hank was truly a person who made a difference in the world, and his contagious smile will be greatly missed by those who knew and loved him.” Makes you want to be somebody, doesn’t it?)


  • Live a life that makes good obituary material (or get started now on the made-up memoirs of the life you’d never dare live)


  • My favorite tip: try to capture in words what your life means to you (all kidding aside—that one’s pretty staggering, isn’t it?)

Those who find getting started to be the biggest challenge may find help from The REMEMBERING Site, a web service that helps you walk through and document your story. The site offers to house personal stories for a $25 fee, but free to anyone who visits is a list of thought-provoking questions about everything from first cars to romance and relationships to your personal politics. I especially appreciated these questions on moods, attitudes, and philosophies:

  • Do you like rainy days? What do you do on them?


  • As an old dog, have you learned new tricks?


  • What heroic attributes do you have? What not-so-heroic-at-all attitudes do you have?


  • Would you say you’re a doer or a procrastinator?


  • Would you say you’re blessed? How so? [questions here are quoted verbatim from The REMEMBERING Site]

My advice? Write your life story if you wish, but then release it from your grip. You have one way of looking at your life, and you have much to tell the world, no doubt. But leave room for others to tell your story too. Your presence and impact may be much more than you realize.

I confessed to someone once my perception of myself as always in the process of falling apart—a mother with a bit of an “out of control” family—and usually very noisy about it. But her perception was entirely different. She said that I came across to her like a post-modern flower child, the model of calm-acceptance of my children’s self-expression. And you know what? I like that label better than the one I gave myself, so I’ll take it. I’m much harder on myself than others are on me, so my self-written obit could be the worst read ever—and inaccurate to boot.


Summing up a life – Part 1

This week I received another in a series of “You should write a book about that!” comments from my friends.

This time it was about my habit of reading the obituaries of people I don’t know because they’re just so darn sweet. I mean who can ignore the sheer human joy evident in the obituary of a recently deceased gentleman who, for whatever character flaws have gone unmentioned, will be remembered for his signature hot dog stew? And what possesses a family to use a headshot with extra-large afro circa 1975 for the obituary portrait of dear old dad? Do you think he was buried in his platform shoes?

Obituaries may seem morbid, but really, they are a good read. Take this line from the story of Hank Zimmerman, age 87: “He was a dedicated husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather who enjoyed farming, cooking, and eventually cats.” On the flip side, here’s a tidbit about Horace B. Willey, Jr., age 89: “He served as President of the Diamond State Beagle Club…” And I love this one about Ruth M. Lee, age 87: “[She] was given her angel wings on October 2, 2011. Ruth enjoyed life, caring for her cats and dogs, feeding the wild birds and chipmunks, cooking, especially baking, gardening, and going to lunch with her best friend Joanna. She was known for her green thumb and growing the biggest tomatoes.”

During the conversation, someone mentioned the obit of notorious Delaware killer Thomas Capano, who was found dead in his prison cell back in September. To that point he’d served about 14 years of a life sentence for the murder of Anne Marie Fahey who was then Delaware governor’s scheduling secretary and he died of natural causes, possibly a heart attack.

What struck my friends was that the obituary was a glowing affirmation of the life of community servant, loving father, and all around man of good taste. One person speculated that Mr. Capano’s daughters must have believed he was innocent (after all, what daughter could live her life even imagining that her father was capable of killing his young mistress and disposing of her dead body by stuffing it in a cooler and dumping it off the Jersey shore—it would be hard for Meadow Soprano to get her head around that one, I think). I suspect this may be the case.

Regardless, I think there’s something beautiful about how the remembrance of the Capano family separates the noble, the sweet, the precious memories of their loved one from his unfaithful, ruinous, and monstrous actions. The exercise of mining a life for the good parts is an amazing lesson in finding light even in the darkest of situations. This may not be 100% of the story, but it’s enough to you’re your personal narrative into a palatable form and to help you put one foot in front of the other for another day.

Kudos to the Capano family for getting it right.


Obituary excerpts from The Dover Post newspaper and The News Journal online edition