Today’s subject may be a tough one for you. You will either stop reading, or maybe you’ll gain some food for thought. My daughter Rocki was here recently for a few precious days. We had not seen one another personally for over three years, and we spent most of the time sharing some deep thoughts about life and all the changes. One morning as we sat together with our coffee, gazing at the ocean, Rocki said, “Mom, it’s time for you to update your obituary.”
She is right. This is a task I make myself do about every 10 years, and she always gets a copy. Writing your own obituary never occurred to me until I took a rather extensive hospice training class at a major hospital in Los Angeles. There were 13 of us in the class, taught by an amazing hospice nurse. That hospital had a ward set aside for hospice patients, and they were always in need of volunteers. I had been delivering Meals on Wheels for three years, and it was time to step up for a new learning experience — and perhaps get rid of issues I had at that time about this thing called death and dying.
I was like a sponge in that class and took copious notes. It felt like I had found my main “calling.” During the course, the hospice nurse gave us the assignment to write our own obituary. I think only five of us completed the assignment.
In the 1980s we had moved to the Oregon coast, and I started writing this column for the Newport News-Times. Most of those early columns were humorous observations of our new community, pointing out (with wry humor) some of the differences between life in L.A. and in Newport. Oy vey! Occasionally, I would write a story based on an experience in the hospice ward. Our phone started ringing with people saying, “I just read your story in the News-Times and want to know why we don’t have hospice here on the Oregon coast.” I thought, well, that’s not what I came here to do. All I wanted was to walk the beach, have multiple animals, be a writer and get my husband away from the stressful entertainment world.
But once again, I felt “the calling.” It took time and a ton of energy to get an all-volunteer hospice organized, recognized and up and running. I facilitated many classes, which always included the assignment of “write your own obituary.” It was not a surprise to find out the degree of resistance. The classes also included a field trip to Bateman’s Funeral Home for a complete tour, thanks to owner Gene Bateman.
It was not a surprise when only a few in the class showed up to explore a funeral home. I think, in fact I know, this all boils down to our universal denial of death. Most of us like to think we will live forever.
The reason to write your own obituary is twofold. It will save your loved ones from doing this painful job. If you write it, your words will describe your life and what is most important to you. My personal opinion since taking that long ago class is realizing that many obituaries read like a resume. My husband Burt wrote most of his own, and nowhere does it mention his educational or professional accomplishments, although he certainly excelled in both.
This past weekend I attended a party with quite a few friends, one of whom is a local pastor. We had a private conversation on this subject, and he said he had been trying for years to encourage his flock to take care of end-of-life issues. So far, only one person has followed through.
I have no idea if a seed has been planted with you, but I hope so. A dear friend lost her husband last year and said writing his obituary was the hardest thing she had ever done. My heart hurt for her.
And now before my daughter starts nagging me, I am about to update my own obituary. Since this subject is such a departure from my usual laugh and scratch style, I will leave you with the following: “As I drove into the cemetery for a family service, the voice on my GPS announced. ‘You have reached your final destination.’”