Jewish World Review April 1, 2004 / 11 Nissan, 5764

Lloyd Garver

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Something you're dying to write | I'm not much of a do-it-yourselfer, but the latest trend has caught my attention: do-it-yourself obituaries. Carolyn Gilbert is the founder of the International Association of Obituarists. (Imagine how much fun those office Christmas parties must be.) Gilbert says the number of self-written notices have been increasing lately, and she doesn't feel this trend will die off soon.

The Internet makes writing your own obituary simple. There are Web sites that can help you, some of which have fill-in-the-blank forms. It's kind of like a computer dating form. In fact, some people can probably use some of the same phrases on both forms, like "loves to hang-glide," and "smokes too much."

Some people write their own obituaries because they want to make sure the facts are correct. Probably the most famous case of a mistaken obituary was that of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of both dynamite and the Nobel Prize. Alfred's brother died, but the newspaper mistakenly thought Alfred had passed away, and they printed his obituary. In it, the paper described the inventor of TNT as the "Merchant of Death." After reading this, Alfred re-evaluated his life, and dedicated himself to rewarding people whose work would help humanity, not destroy it. He left millions of dollars to be given away with Nobel Prizes.

Some motivational types point to Nobel's story as a way for all of us to evaluate our lives and change them. They suggest that we write our obituaries now, read them, and then ask ourselves if this is really how we want to be remembered. It's a nice idea.

However, this assumes that people would be honest in what they write. Would Nobel really have written his obituary the same way the paper did? Would the evil tyrants of history have described themselves as "evil tyrants," or as "great leaders?" I don't think a ruthless, crooked businessman would write, "He made thievery and corruption an art form."

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Why do we even care what people think about us after we're dead? I guess it's the same reason we don't like people talking about us behind our backs. We don't want them judging us when we can't defend ourselves. If someone lies about us after we're dead, we want to be able to shout out from the grave, "That's not true!"

So, some people would rather not leave their obituary to others. They want to tell their side of the story. This might result in some very interesting obituaries, like:

  • "At least while you're reading this, could you wipe that smile off your face?"

  • "By the way, Eddie, I was bluffing. I only had a pair of deuces."

  • "Mr. Smith is survived by his devoted wife, three children, four grandchildren, and a conniving cousin who still owes him ten bucks."

  • "It's true that I signed that Living Will, but I don't think a glass of water qualifies as an 'extraordinary or heroic measure.'"
As self-written obituaries become more popular, I assume that self-written eulogies will, too. Having your own words spoken at your funeral could make for some interesting services. We're bound to hear things like, "I'd like to thank you all for coming to my funeral — although I wish it were the other way around."

And if someone wants to shake things up at his or her funeral, they can always go with, "I'm not positive there was foul play, but doesn't that guy in the second row with the bad tie look a little suspicious to you?"

With all due respect to Nobel and his explosive obituary, in general, I don't think self-written obituaries are going to end up being more accurate than those written by strangers. But they'll probably be more fun to read.

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JWR contributor Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. Comment by clicking here. Visit his website by clicking here.


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© 2003, Lloyd Garver