As I approach my eighth decade of what philosophers call “life,” I’ve been spending a lot of time reading obituaries. Charmingly, my local paper calls them “Life Tributes.” Every morning, after I confirm that my name is not listed, I compare the ages of the deceased to my own, a process that consists of a parade of thought bubbles: “Older…younger…older…older…younger…older…exactly my age!” The sense of community I’m developing is, unfortunately, not comforting.

In obituaries, some people “die” (often “peacefully”), others “pass away,” and still others “enter into rest” that is frequently characterized as “eternal.” Presumably, those who are resting in a non-eternal fashion have only left us for a while, pending the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election. Some may prefer to stay dead until at least 2024.

I've read enough of these now to have a few suggestions for presenting the news of your passing:

Make sure to tell your family the phrase you want to describe your departure.

I’m leaning towards, “He’s outta here!”

Get a good photograph taken.

Most photographs that accompany obituaries show a smiling individual, though occasionally you’ll encounter a constipated frown that suggests the deceased didn’t enjoy life all that much to begin with. And some photos appear to be at least 60 years out of date, depicting octogenarians during their optimistic, fresh-faced teen years, sporting retro hairstyles. This is the way people look before they discover the bitter truth that interest will accrue if they don’t pay their credit card balance in full every month.

When you reach 70, have your photo taken immediately and order your family to use that image for your obituary, no matter how much longer you live. Keep a laminated copy on your person at all times. If you were a humanities major in college, feel free to dispense with the photo option and commission instead a pen-and-ink drawing that depicts your head as an unrecognizable piece of Cubist art (think Picasso). Your grand-nieces and nephews will think you are subversive and cool.

Figure out how you want your relationship described.

Individuals who were married at the time of their death are typically described as the “beloved” husband/wife of their spouse. Although such an attribution may be warranted, in many cases it probably is not, and a descriptor such as “annoying,” “barely tolerated,” or even “thoroughly disliked” would be more accurate. This is a tough call.

Have a candid conversation with your spouse about the relationship adjective you prefer for your obituary. You don’t want your extended family to see the word “beloved” if their response is likely to be, “You’re kidding, right? The police used to show up at their house at least twice a month!”

Less is more.

Obituaries can be mind-numbingly long, taking up the better part of an entire column of newsprint. Frankly, this is ridiculous. It occurs when every…single…activity engaged in by the deceased appears to have been deemed sufficiently noteworthy to merit inclusion: “Enjoyed hard candies”…“An avid amateur beekeeper, Harold was only stung twice in 20 years”…“Served on The Elks committee responsible for renovating the men’s room in the Lodge basement in 2004”…“Preferred turtle-neck sweaters to V-necks.” I hate to sound callous, but no…one…cares, and the departed would almost certainly be embarrassed if they knew you were sharing these factoids.

Preserve some mystery about your days on planet Earth. Instead of providing readers with a Grand List of Trivia, give them a single tantalizing tidbit such as, “Bernice had many secrets, one of which involved a prominent member of Congress from Wisconsin, and led to the passage of legislation protecting badgers in 1959”…“Travis believed he was the father of Todd and Margie, but his wife wasn’t so sure”…“Basil owed his brother $26,000 when he died, but for what?”

Be honest.

Finally, it is often claimed that the departed “will be dearly missed by all who knew him” (or her). Do you really want to go there? Hell, even Mr. Rogers probably had a few acquaintances who were glad when he was gone. Nobody is liked by everybody.

Enhance the credibility of your obituary by giving a more nuanced account of how people are likely to respond to your passing: “Basil’s memory will be cherished by many, but not by his brother Garth, to whom he owed $26,000.”

In a world where so much seems to be beyond the control of the individual, it’s nice to know that there is one domain—death notices—where you can make a difference.


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