Did you know that there is a society for professional obituary writers? And that they give awards? The Grimmys. True fact, with a bit of dark humor.
I have been interested in obituaries for awhile now. Whether they are the long pieces about famous people written by the pros or the more usual, family-written passages, they can be interesting reads and provide great material for fiction writers. But usually we are not reading obituaries for amusement but because they commemorate a life we know, and then they are so very, very personal.
My good friend, also a writing partner of many years, lost her mother this week. She reached out to me for help finding some “mentor texts” of good obituaries. This is a quite peculiar, very grown-up task- to memorialize a life of someone so close and dear to us, in a few words. (And very expensive words at that.)
How do you write a brief synopsis of a life? It feels impossible at first, and then it may feel rote. Year of birth and date of death, cause of death, surviving family (spell it all right and don’t forget anybody.) Do you include a photograph, and then which one- young or old? And then what? What do you include and what do you omit? How can you possibly convey what the person meant to their family and friends?
It may hurt to try to edit out things that are important. It may hurt to see your passage nestled among scores of others on the newspaper page.
Yet it is a helpful exercise, too. If our loved one has been lucky enough to live a long life, we often have been saturated with sadness for awhile in their decline. The hearty, capable individual has been weakened and may have had decreasing ability to reason, remember, express themselves. We have been adjusting to their changing reality over and over, trying to help them, fill their needs, all the while burying a slow-burn of grief under positivity and cheerfulness. Sitting to write the obituary makes us review their whole life, their life of productivity and contribution, of overcoming obstacles and of finding themselves. The obituary jump-starts the memory process of letting go of recent hurt and remembering the totality.
My little writing group feels we know our friend’s mother, though we never met her. (You can read Sally’s beautiful piece on this today: “Gone But Still With Us” )Through her daughter’s writing we know many of the mother’s stories; strengths and foibles. We know what a remarkable and gracious woman she has been, what an extraordinary life led. We also know of her decline.
When my mother died I remember looking down the hall of the church before the memorial service and seeing my writing group gathered, there to support me. They also knew my mother, from my writing. Knew of her life and of her decline. Years later I still tear up, remembering how much it meant to me to see them there.
An obituary is a too short piece written for an impossible purpose. But it is worth doing and doing well. Though we always want more stories and more details, as we should. I guess that’s what friends are for.