What I’ll Say About Myself When I Die
An actor's viral obit reflects the new trend to memorialize yourself
Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian.com and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship.
We’re talking about the do-it-yourself obituary.
Thanks to blogs, Facebook and social media, we’re all self-published documenters of our own lives these days. So why shouldn’t that continue after we’re dead?
The most notable recent example of writing your own farewell essay: Homeland actor James Rebhorn’s His Life, According to Jim. His church published the obit that Rebhorn wrote in advance when he died at age 65 on March 21, and it quickly went viral.
The Latest Boomer Trend
And yeah, it’s a boomer thing, say observers of the growth of the self-written send-off.
“I think we are seeing it more,” said Susan Soper, former features editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a blogger at the Legacy.com online obituary website.
“I think it’s another baby boomer trend. Boomers like to be in control,” said Soper, 66. “They like to be in charge of their lives.”
And that is now extending into the end of their lives.
“They want to make sure their life story is told the way they want it to be told,” Soper said.
(MORE: How to Craft Your Memoir)
A Reaction to the Silent Generation
Soper said the desire of boomers to tell their own stories may also be a reaction to the reticence of earlier generations to talk about themselves. When boomers’ parents die, it’s often difficult for their children to pull together all the information needed for an accurate and meaningful obituary.
Soper’s solution is something she created called the ObitKit, a $20 workbook that prompts you to fill in information like your career history; heroes or notable ancestors; three adjectives that best describe yourself and the notable turning points in your life.
Even if you don’t want to write your own obituary, getting that basic information written down will help whoever is left with the task, Soper said.
If you do want to write it yourself, Soper said, don’t be afraid to go beyond the basic school/career/survivors/resumé facts of life.
Obituaries these days can also include your favorite foods or happiest trips, Soper said.
“They’re much more personality-driven,” Soper said. “I would think out of the box. Try to think of yourself more creatively.”
The Tongue-in-Cheek Obituary
Out-of-the-box thinking has led to an unusual genre of obits — some self-written — that have recently gained fame on the Internet: the tongue-in-cheek obituary.
“Waffle House lost a loyal customer,” began the obituary of Toni Larroux, who died April 30, 2013 after battling “lupus, rickets, scurvy, kidney disease and feline leukemia.”
Harry Weathersby Stamps “despised phonies, his 1969 Volvo (which he also loved), know-it-all Yankees, Southerners who used the words ‘veranda’ and ‘porte cochere’ to put on airs, eating grape leaves, Law and Order (all franchises), cats, and Martha Stewart,” according to an obituary written for his March 9, 2013 death.
And Walter Bruhl Jr.’s obituary, written by him before he died on March 9, 2014, noted that Bruhl was “preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1935, a spinal disc in 1974, a large piece of his thyroid gland in 1988, and his prostate on March 27, 2000.”
“People who are obit readers are kind of into sending these around and sharing them,” Soper said.
(MORE: 30 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die)
A Final Message of Love
Rebhorn touched a more poignant chord at the end of his life.
Of his wife and children, he wrote, “They anchored his life and gave him the freedom to live it. Without them, always at the center of his being, his life would have been little more than a vapor.”
What Rebhorn wrote was essentially a farewell message to his loved ones, writing about them as much as he did about himself, said Andrew Meacham, “Chief Epilogue Writer” for the Tampa Bay Times and president of The Society of Professional Obituary Writers.
“Basically, it’s not an obit,” Meacham said.
Meacham, 60, estimates he’s written at least 1,000 obituaries, although he hasn’t tried to do one for himself.
But he said that if he did, he’d want to try to convey a sense of both his personality and the twists and turns of his life, both good and bad, including his struggles with alcohol addiction and the eight years he spent doing construction work “because that’s what I was qualified to do as a philosophy major, to dig and carry things.”
“Maybe I’ll give it a shot and just not think about it too much,” Meacham said of attempting a selfie-obit.
Whether you want to go for a funny, poignant or warts-and-all approach, Soper urges everyone to give it a shot.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to say in my obit,’” Soper said. But “everybody has a story worth telling.”