Obituary Stories

By Pat Remick

While we all love writing, unfortunately there are times we must use our talent for tasks that are challenging or heartbreaking, such as composing obituaries or eulogies for loved ones.

Recently I did both to honor my father and because I am a longtime admirer of obituaries, I was cognizant of how my words would form an enduring portrait and choosing the wrong ones might produce a false legacy. I did my best, but how do you adequately sum up a life in a few column inches? As a gift to my children, I’ve written my own obituary and I certainly hope it will be outdated by the time they have to use it!

These exceptions aside, I enjoy reading obituaries even when I have no connection to the deceased or their survivors. Obituaries are wonderful stories. Some are better written than novels and many likely are just as fictional. I’m always intrigued by what information is included and curious about who and what’s left out — and why. Although an obituary purports to be a snapshot of a life, it’s important to remember that it’s also a history related by family members as they viewed it, and often composed by strangers at a newspaper or funeral home.

I like obituaries that surprise or make me laugh (not unlike the character in my novel-in-progress who reads them aloud to her dog). I howled when I read that before Donald C. Cheney passed, the 85-year-old man known for his wit opened his eyes and asked family members hovering around his bed, “Do you people know something I don’t?”

I enjoy learning about the hobbies of the deceased. It surprises me how many were ice fishermen or knitting enthusiasts. I recently read about a man whose favorite pastime was visiting Dunkin’ Donuts shops and a woman whose hobby was spending time at the mall. So many of the departed were fans of the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics that I’ve often wondered if the organizations send sympathy cards or worry about losing fans to the great beyond.

I do take comfort in knowing most of the deceased will be “dearly missed,” if you believe their obituaries. I doubt the man who had a “crusty exterior although some people suspected he might possibly have had a softer side” was among them, however.

Have you thought about what you want your obituary to say? Would you write your own? Will it be a short story or a novel?

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7 Responses to Obituary Stories

  1. Pat, what an important topic. The last time I visited my parents, we discussed this. As the writer in the family, I knew I’d get this task, so I begged my mother to list what she wanted included. I knew I’d forget something. My dad horned in and began to yell what he wanted included in his. (The yelling is not troublesome, both of my parents are almost deaf.) Finally, I asked would she please write their obits, and she was delighted! Apparently, she and my dad had a wonderful time recalling their achievements, their civic activities and volunteer work, and what they wanted to say about themselves. This makes me wonder if we should all write our own obits, or work with someone to write it, long before our time comes. It was a positive thing for my parents…of course, that may just mean they’re weird.

  2. Oh, someone at my church (Quakers) is always encouraging the rest of us to write our obits now. Have I done it? No! Even though I think I should. I love the idea of making it a short story, though. Each scene of my life has had quite a twist so far, too.

  3. Rosemary says:

    I have started to read obituaries. The bio for one of the characters in my first book was lifted from an obit I read in the NY Times – where she went to school, how her classmates remembered her. I love reading the remembrances of people, what they loved, what they accomplished, what other people thought were the two or three things that should be distilled from their time on this planet. I don’t know what I’d want my own obit to say other than “she tried to be a good person.”

    • patremick says:

      I could have added that I’ve been writing my own eulogy as part of something else I’m working on, and have asked a few people to provide me with some words describing me as they view me — surprising to see the differences — and this may explain generally why obituaries don’t necessarily reflect the person. And this also means we probably all should be writing our own!!

  4. Liz says:

    When I was a reporter, there was a very dear older man in town who was not terribly old, but ill. He was the unofficial town historian, he believed firmly that Samuel Huntington of Norwich was the “real” first president, and spent thousands of dollars and a lot of arguments on the topic. He had become a grandfather to me. I was so horrified when one of my editors asked me, during one of his illnesses, to start writing his obituary, “just in case,” so we’d have it “ready to go.” At first I thought it was begging for a sad ending, but when I started the assignment, it became something to cherish–because I got to talk to him about his own stories (although I didn’t tell him why I was asking). It was something I never got to do with my own grandfather. And it helped me get to know him even better. Luckily, my version of the obituary didn’t need to get used at that point–it was a couple of years after I left the paper that he passed away. But it was a good lesson for me.

  5. As a genealogist I know what a rich source of material obituaries can be–assuming, of course, that they’re accurate. I wrote one for my father and had it published in The Philadelphia Inquirer because his wife (#3) had written one that was full of errors, and I wanted to set the record straight. Recently in the New York Sunday Times I saw one for a clearly successful and prosperous man that was a full column long. How many of us could fill that, even if we could afford to? At the other extreme, I read a short, sad one about a child this week, which mentioned that his cat had predeceased him.

    In this day of computer archiving, our obituaries will probably outlive any physical monument. It’s an interesting exercise to decide what we want people to remember us for.

  6. I enjoy reading obituaries and will read almost any one when I have the chance. I pay particular attention to those of anyone over 90 because I think they must be doing something right to live so long and, according to their obituaries, so well. I guess I should consider writing mine too. I’m not 90 yet but I certainly want to be included in what I have to say about myself.

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