What It Means to Write Your Own Obituary
This may be the most playful—and concise—obituary* ever published.
Before Douglas Legler died in 2015, he insisted that his obit consist of only those two words, leaving his loved ones and total strangers with a good laugh. Doug also turned the traditional obituary format on its head, as he didn’t give us his biography or resume—but we certainly learn something important about who Doug was.
If you wrote your own obituary, what would it say? Beyond that, what would it mean to you to write your own?
Most obits are still written by funeral homes or family members, but an increasing number of people are penning their own. Obituaries are evolving alongside changes and advances in society and technology, and websites like Legacy.com make writing and publishing obits easy, affordable (sometimes it’s free), and accessible.
Online obits and memorial pages can reach far beyond a deceased person’s immediate community. Obituaries that strike a chord with the public can go “viral” and receive media attention. This typically happens with obits that are less formulaic and make a strong political, social, or personal statement.
Writing your own obituary can be a transformative experience. It’s an opportunity to take stock of your life and sort out what’s most meaningful to you. When we move past recording standard biographical information or regurgitating a resume, we can ask deeper questions:
Who am I, at my core? What is my legacy? Who or what do I impact, and how? What are my values and passions? What is truly important to me?
Most of us think about death when we are confronted with news of a terminal illness or a death, which makes sense. But cultivating an awareness of death is something that can and should be done during ordinary moments, not only in times of crisis. Setting aside time—on a regular Monday night, for example—to compose your obituary can help you develop and nurture an acceptance of death and connect to your own understanding of mortality.
Most of us don’t write about ourselves at all, much less as if we are deceased. Writing about yourself in the past tense, as if you are already dead, is a radical act. It can be jarring, but it can also reorient you to death and the profound reality that one day, you will die. One day, you will be past tense.
Obituary writing offers us a concrete way to reflect on life: what it has been so far, and what we hope it may be down the road. If you die 10, 20, 30 years from now, what would you want your obit to say? This variation of obit writing—the “dream” or “fantasy” obit—can be incredibly thought-provoking:
What am I waiting to do and why am I waiting?
Am I creating the legacy I want?
What do I want more of? Less of?
How do I want to be remembered?
How do I want to live?
The first draft of your obituary doesn’t have to be perfect—and it doesn’t have to be finished in one sitting. Most of us need to start by simply getting words on the page; we can edit later. You can write many drafts of your obituary; it might be an ongoing work in progress that you revisit and update over time.
Perhaps your goal is a finished product that is ready to print. Perhaps your purpose is to inspire personal contemplation or to manage or reduce death anxiety. Maybe you want to tackle this unusual writing project and see what unfolds. What surfaces as important or meaningful in the obituary writing process can be a revelation: You’ll likely solidify what you already know and unearth a surprise or two.
When you compose your own obituary, you can choose to be as creative or experimental as you want, just as Doug did. More importantly, when you engage in any practice that invites you to explore your own mortality, you get to experience the life-affirming outcomes that result from this work.
Death is a natural part of life. It is always present, regardless of age or health status. We have to regularly remind ourselves to normalize and prioritize an awareness of death, and drafting an obituary for yourself is a befitting way to do so. Obituary writing might seem like a simple—albeit challenging—task, but it can be so much more.
Sarah Farr is Founder and Director of Death Positive DC. She has been teaching her “Write Your Own Obit” workshop since 2018.
*A death notice and an obituary are technically different (learn more here). For the purposes of this blog post, the word “obituary” is used throughout.