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Telling Your Story

Ron Wayne

WANT THE LAST WORD? Write your own obituary.

It’s the final opportunity to tell the world you were a great person and that others should regret never having known you. You can write what you want because, in most newspapers, the obituaries are essentially paid ads—and pricey, to boot. No one is going to challenge your obituary’s veracity, at least not publicly, unless it’s outrageous.

Was she really well liked by everyone she met? Was his spouse the love of his life? Was she a gifted painter? Did she really love her job? Will he reunite with family who are already in heaven? No one can refute or confirm that last statement, but many believe or hope it’s true.

Adjectives are used generously: passionate, wonderful, altruistic, witty. There’s no limit to superlatives. Examples: “She was unfailingly selfless and kind.” “He loved everyone unconditionally and radiated warmth.”

Understandably, there are positive and even ebullient words about the afterlife. An obituary for a woman who loved to garden said her family knew “she is already planting giant fields of sunflowers outside of her big, colorful mansion surrounded by sunsets and everlasting rainbows.” Beautiful images, for sure.

Of course, if you’re a public figure, a newspaper will write a “news” story about you that might include comments from family, peers and friends, but won’t make fanciful claims. In fact, it might be unflattering. This happened at a small daily newspaper in Pennsylvania where I worked. A story about the death of a local college coach mentioned something negative in the man’s past. His angry son came to the newspaper office and slugged my managing editor.

But most of us can close the chapters of our life by writing what we want to believe is true. For example, you or your family can indicate how you left this earth. You can die, pass away or transition into eternal life. If you die peacefully, it’s assumed death was anticipated. If you die suddenly, it was unexpected.

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You don’t need to say the cause of death, but it’s good to see pleas for COVID vaccines from victims’ families. Many young people have died prematurely because of opioid addictions, and the obituaries often mention their heartbreaking struggles.

Almost all obituaries list the facts of a person’s birthplace, parents, survivors and family who died before them. Details of funerals, services, burial sites and memorial contributions fill out the post. Newspapers have online forms to help with this process. But if you’ve been lying about your age all your life, you might not want to include your birth date or age.

Newspapers will also reserve the right to refuse or reject any content before final approval. Don’t claim to have been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, unless you were.

You shouldn’t feel cheap about your last words. But be aware that the average cost for the onetime publication of an obituary in a mid-sized newspaper could run $200 to $300—and the longer it is, the larger the tab.

Finally, there’s the photo choice. As someone once said, a picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s an important decision. Maybe you’ll want to use the studio portrait of when you were in your prime, even though 60 years have since passed. Sometimes, it looks odd to see an obituary for an octogenarian with a photo of her as a debutante. But hey, it’s the final scene in the movie of your life. Let them remember you the way you want.

Want some pointers on how to write your obituary? Here are some links to articles that give detailed advice:

Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring last fall, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. Check out Ron’s earlier articles.

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Rob Thompson
Rob Thompson
1 year ago

You can save (in some respect) the newspaper obituary fee if you participate at Ancestry.com. That is where it probably matter to genealogists down the road. Add the person’s obituary to their “gallery” as a PDF and unless Ancestry.com tanks it will be there forever and readily available versus a wide-ranging internet search through thousands of newspapers.

An
An
1 year ago

“But if you’ve been lying about your age all your life, you might not want to include your birth date or age.”
Why would this matter now that you are dead?

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
1 year ago
Reply to  An

Some people want to carry that secret to the grave, especially in previous generations when wives were supposed to be younger than their husbands.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ronald Wayne
An
An
1 year ago
Reply to  Ronald Wayne

Their secret made it to their grave. It was unknown during their life. Are you saying they want to control things from their grave? If so, how sad for them – can’t rest even when they are dead.

John Yeigh
John Yeigh
1 year ago

I’m working toward five words, “A life well lived, RIP”

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
1 year ago

Ron, I usually start my mornings with a cup of coffee and reading the latest posts on HD, but I wasn’t expecting to read about this topic! We have had several close family members pass recently, and the task of writing and submitting an obit a day or two after the death while simultaneously making arrangements and grieving is challenging. To remember to include certain key facts and to not inadvertently forget to include someone’s name in a succinct and hastily composed obit, is not as easy as it may seem for those who are not skilled writers. Ideally, people would write their own obit, which they can edit or modify over time. Or, they might simply write a brief sketch of their life which you can refer to when composing the actual obit on their behalf when the day arrives. Thanks for posting this.

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