Comedic actor and director Carl Reiner begins his day the same way lots of folks do.
“Every morning, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I have my breakfast.”
Reiner, 97, makes this observation in the 2017 HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a survey of some of the world’s most vital nonagenarians, including Hollywood greats Dick Van Dyke and Betty White.
The director of such comedy classics as “Oh, God!” with George Burns and “The Jerk” with Steve Martin, Reiner will never have to worry about the contents of his obituary because his estimable career warrants the attention of the New York Times, which already has written Reiner’s obit, to be published quickly in the event of his untimely death.
But what about the rest of us? Who is going to chronicle the equally noble, though not widely notable, contributions and accomplishments of Joe and Jill Taxpayer?
Or at least we will publish your obituary. When it comes to writing the obit, you’re on your own.
That’s not entirely true. The obituary writing process tends to shake out something like this: You die unexpectedly (even for the aged and infirm, death is often unexpected), and the people who love you, while navigating their grief, try to pull together the details of your life as best they can without the benefit of having you around to consult. A well-meaning funeral home director runs your family through a basic template, assembling all of the vital statistics: time, place and manner of death, residence, age, birthplace, parents, siblings, children, occupation, church and social memberships, hobbies, an enumeration of survivors and, finally, funeral information.
That amalgam of functional, if too often lifeless, data points is sent to LNP, which prints it at a cost of $28.62 per column inch.
That’s not cheap, nor should it be. The cost reflects the gravity of the task, or rather the value of the opportunity: An obituary is the last chance (for some, the only chance) to make an indelible mark on the world. It is an opportunity to write history — your history — and store it in the public record.
If you are content with a flat reporting of your life’s deeds, then by all means let those who come after you choose the particulars of your life that they deem worth remembering. But if your life requires more than a two-dimensional accounting of facts, start crafting your obituary now.
To help in the task, we asked perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the subject, New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald, to give LNP readers a piece of advice on how to approach what can seem a daunting task for the uninitiated.
To flesh out a life, McDonald said, choose a fine brush.
“(At The New York Times), we try to give you the broad picture of somebody and why they are important, but also a little more of the minutia of a life, which I think humanizes people,” he said. “We try to stay away from the tributes — you know, ‘He was a wonderful father and brother.’ We understand that you’re going to get that from family in a death notice, but anyone will say that about a loved one. So you’re not telling anybody anything they don’t already know or couldn’t surmise. To me, you want to write a rich, detailed narrative, as much as you can.”
To get a sense of what McDonald means by “a rich, detailed narrative,” pick up a copy of Wednesday’s LNP or go to LancasterOnline to read the obituary of Margaret L. Newson, minister’s wife and quiet force of nature, who died July 24 at age 92.
Like many women of her generation, Newson was a homemaker, but history will remember her as so much more because someone took the time to explain what that often challenging role meant to her. “Her tidy and orderly house became a welcome haven for family, friends and parishioners,” her obituary reads. “She managed a daunting schedule of homework (for her four children), music lessons, newspaper routes, countless school and sports events, church activities and a husband who never had weekends off. She nursed the sick and paid the bills.”
When her children went off one by one to college, each “would receive a handwritten letter from her weekly, without fail, with $5 tucked inside.”
The obituary contains her personal philosophy — “Buck up. Do a little each day. Look at the improvements!” — and even a quote from her late husband of 66 years. The Presbyterian minister said of his lifelong love, “She’s strong as an oak yet gentle as a lamb. … She’s one of a kind, a very, very rare jewel.”
Newson’s obituary paints a picture of a three-dimensional human being. The incidentals, like the money-laced letters to her children at college, often say the most.
While Newson clearly benefited from a loved one with a keen sense of storytelling, most of us don’t have writers in the family. If you want your story told your way, you likely will have to shoulder some of the responsibility. (And in the age of social media, first-person obits are all the rage.)
So get out pencil and paper, folks, because it’s time for a writing exercise. Nothing too difficult. Just answer a few straightfoward questions.
Who do you love?
What brings you joy?
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
What has been your greatest challenge in life?
Have you made a difference? If so, how and to whom?
What have you learned?
These questions have nothing and everything to do with specific life events. They address the initiative and intention that binds together the facts of a life. Answering them will help you choose the details that matter.
Now get busy. Be bold, be honest and choose your words carefully.
This article is part of LNP's ongoing series called "Death and Dying." To see the full collection of our articles, click here.