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If I should die (and you should live)…

By Shelah Miner

5:30 a.m., the alarm rings. I slap my hair into messy pigtails, throw on a neon-yellow technical shirt, leggings, and my running shoes, and strap on an anklet. I’m not much of an accessorizer, especially before sunrise, but I don’t wear the anklet because it’s cute; it’s a Road ID, so if I collapse on the side of the road or get hit by a car, the person who finds me knows who I am and how to contact my family. My husband calls it “the morbid bracelet,” and I guess it should come as no surprise that I often head out the door thinking of my mortality.

An hour later, I grab the paper in the driveway and walk back into the house. If I have a few minutes before the kids start clamoring for me to comb their hair and help them find their shoes, I crack open the paper to my favorite goulishly guilty pleasure, the obituaries. We used to come to Utah a couple of times a year to visit my in-laws, and one of the highlights of the trip, along with the de rigeur visits to Brick Oven and Cafe Rio, was waking up each morning to the Deseret News obituaries. Where I grew up, the obituaries were very basic, just a short paragraph of when someone was born, who survived them, and when their services would be held. But here in Utah, the obituaries are filled with lists of church callings, hobbies and passions, and entertaining tidbits about courtships and vacations, awards and honors. I adore them– they make me smile, make me giggle, and get me misty-eyed, all before seven a.m.  I feel like so much of our culture as Utah Mormons is brought to the forefront in the words we choose to honor our departed loved ones.

Reading between the lines, it’s often not too hard to tell when a family is still reeling from a shocking, unexpected death that came too soon. Other times, the obituary is polished and perfected over the months of standing vigil. Still other times, the deceased wrote their own tribute. Sometimes they’ve been carefully edited, other times not so much, and that’s part of their charm. Maybe it’s because I confront my own death each morning when I head out into the darkness, or maybe it’s because I read too many obituaries, but I find myself often thinking about what my survivors would say, and what I’d want them to say.

Anyone else out their share my passion for reading about the dead? If you’ve written an obituary, what went into the process? What would you want people to say about you when you were gone?

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About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

34 thoughts on “If I should die (and you should live)…”

  1. I have often wondered about what will be said at my funeral. Often we see ourselves differently than others see us, and I guess I just wonder what other people see. I think it is natural to think about the mark we are making, or not making.

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  2. We were shell-shocked when my mom died. On Friday, we thought she'd pull through and on Saturday she was dying. We didn't have any conversations about her obituary at all.

    The most stressful thing about obituaries is that they need to be written so quickly. We watched my mother die, lay across her body and sobbed, dealt with the morticians (ack!!) and wrote the obituary on the same day.

    But as my sister and I sat down to write it together we found it a peaceful, enjoyable task. Yes, we cried the entire time but we laughed a bit too and we felt my mother's presence as we wrote. We both had impressions about the things she wanted included and what she didn't want. We left out the list of callings and accomplishments and focused on her essence. It was important to tell of her conversion to the LDS church and her testimony. We talked about some of the things that were hard in her life.

    In one of those serendipitous accidents, the funeral home neglected to crop the obituary photo for the newspaper. so instead of just her face her photo was a 1/2 length shot of my mom holding a pie. It was very sweet.

    I loved writing it. It felt like a gift to her. Dressing her body at the funeral home was another task that I had dreaded that became very sweet.

    http://scenesfromthewild.blogspot.com/2009/06/mom.html

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  3. I used to find it fascinating as well, that is, until my brother died unexpectedly, and while his obituary was somewhere in the middle of the two extremes you described, I felt like it didn't do my brother justice. I now accept my mortality as part of life, don't stress about it. However, since my brother died 'too early', I do take steps to prolong my life, like eating right, exercising, taking care of my mental health, etc.

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  4. I worked for BYU's alumni office for several years, and one of my jobs was scanning the local papers for obituaries to find graduates who had died. I also love reading them because I find them fascinating, although some are just so sad.

    My brother-in-law was killed in an accident Saturday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon the guy from the mortuary showed up and we had to suddenly write an obituary and choose a coffin and all that. It was so hard; so much easier when you're expecting it. My husband did most of the writing since he's a good writer; I don't really remember it–it was fairly basic. I will admit that since I've had a number of family members and friends pass away during the last few years I have thought about funeral arrangments for myself and my family, and I even have tried to figure out which pictures we could use.

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  5. We are obituary readers at our house. My husband counts "older and younger". Most days he is about right in the middle. I read obituaries, and like Shelah I am charmed by many of them. I also often assume about what is being said and not said between the lines. So yes, I have written my own. (The first version was written about ten years ago. Along with sundry other end of life instructions for my family.) Why?? Well I have confronted death more than once so far, so it does get one thinking. Also I am sure that I know better what I would like said than anyone else. Mine is pretty straightforward with a few "editorial comments". I have reread and edited it(in minor ways) a number of times, so I'm pretty sure that it is what I want to say.

    For the most part I want things quite simple. For example I don't understand why anyone needs to pay for a limo. Also we can make our own programs. I have even toyed with the idea of home viewings, or visitations such as happened when I was a child. They seemed much nicer than the mortuary visits done now. I even think a "wake" for teenaged and older grandkids would be a fine idea. Juanita Brooks talks about one for her grandpa who had saved money for a party for them during his wake. It sounds "just right".
    I also enjoy displays at viewings, etc. We created displays for our 50th anniversary party. Afterwards I kept the labels and put them in our "funeral files".

    And finally I feel very strongly that funerals should not be hijacked by the bishop (or anyone else) as a "great missionary opportunity". I have seen it happen and have explicity said that if we happen to have such a bishop to take the service elsewhere (although all things considered I hope the service can be at our church.)

    With all that said, I hope (and expect) to be around for a good while yet.

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  6. I was writing mine before any others were up and then I went to my exercise class, and came back and finished it. After I posted I saw what Michelle L. and Foxy J had written. Condolences to both of you and your families. Death is doubly hard when unexpected and untimely.

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  7. My sister loves them, but hates when they don't tell the reason for the death.
    We are currently planning my FILs obit, eulogy and other funeral things you can sort of do while the person is alive. He's in very poor health. And besides that Catholic funerals are not as personal as LDS ones, so I'm trying to make it a nice tribute.

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  8. I do love to read obituaries. My mom does too so it must be hereditary. She works has worked in the same nursing home for over 20 years and she has a scrapbook of Obituaries, all of the patients she has taken care of that have passed on. My little brother calls it her "Dead Friends Book" to which she just replies "I guess that aptly names it."

    I can't handle the paper chaos the actual delivered paper brings but on occasion I will click over to one of my local papers and read them. I don't like the way they are formatted at the Deseret News having to click on a name to see the picture and be able to read them. I prefer the Daily Heralds presentation. I also don't like that unless they are "sponsored" the Deseret News takes them down after 30 days. They seem to be stored and available forever in the archive at the Daily Herald.

    My dad passed away rather suddenly this past summer and from time to time I just go and read the obit again and to see his face. One of my uncles wrote the text of it and then the three children were involved in a little bit in the editing.

    I think that the funeral home charged a bit for submitting it to the paper through them. You are just blind with grief and can hardly think that their might be a more cost effective way to do anything but I think it would have been less expensive to just take it down to the paper ourselves. They also didn't finish the editing that they were doing around him image so part of is is a little bit of a grayish back drop and part of it is the back drop from my brother's wedding reception line. The most important part though is my dad's kind face so it doesn't bother me too much.

    I have a couple of songs I would like at my funeral. I don't know how the spirit world works but if I get to be in attendance they are the ones that I would like to sing and hear. Other than that I hope they don't spend a ton of money on the funeral. All the expenses for my dad I think came close to 14,000 I would spend it again especially for the the ease that it provided my grandparents, but for me I hope they will not be to lavish. My grandparents really needed the transportation and comfort the limo provided being frail in the first place and on top of that grieving. It was included in the package and a much needed service.

    My Dad's funeral provided important closure. The actual service was held in the chapel he grew up attending. It was beautiful and the love and the Spirit were both tangible.

    http://ads.heraldextra.com/articles/2009/06/27/obituaries/345103.txt

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  9. I love obits too. But like Clistyb it drives me crazy when they don't give the reason. I'm left to thinking they killed themselves or something awful like that. Sometimes there are clues (please make donations to the Huntsman Cancer Institute), but usually not. I've instructed my husband to please put my cause of death (if I go first). Even if it's something gruesome.

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  10. I don't read obits, but I think about my mortality a bit, too. I think I need one of those anklets. I have a little scrap of paper in my wallet with my husband's wrok number so they'll know who to call if ever I die in a car crash.

    I've thought about what I would want people to say at my funeral, in my obit, etc. I mostly just hope they overlook all of my faults and weirdness, and remember the good things about me–I HOPE the good things about me are more apparent than the faults and weirdness.

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  11. Obituaries give us a window into a person's life and personality. I have written several family obituaries in the past few years, and each has been a treasured experience and has helped me through my own grief.
    I face my own mortality on a daily basis because of chronic illness, but I don't feel morbid about it. I just see each day as a gift. As for funeral instructions, I have put some suggestions in the file with my will (notably that, other than flowers, the service will be fragrance-free).

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  12. Obituaries aren't very common in the paper here in Australia – only a couple once a week in the major newspapers. I do read them when I see them though.

    In my obituary, I'd want there to be honesty. I wouldn't want to be painted as perfect (or even near-perfect) because then nobody would know it was me! I love how you twisted the question's direction "What would you want people to say about you when you're gone?" – it makes me think about what I need to do now to make it happen.

    I'd love my sons to say they never doubted I loved them, that I was a weird and wonderful Mum, for my friends to say I was a great and loyal friend, and my family to say I made a good difference in their lives. And everyone to know I loved God, believed in Christ, and expect to see everyone again.

    Thanks for the think!

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  13. I read the obits every day and have for years. My 3-year-old is so used to it that now she thinks anyone whose picture is in the paper has died. Reading the obituaries has given me information about people I've lost track of. For example, once I saw a childhood friend that I hadn't heard from in decades listed as a survivor when her grandfather died. The obituary told me her married name, which I had not known.

    I had to write the obituary when my father died, and while I'm a good writer and generally love writing, I did not enjoy writing the obit. I don't know, I guess it made it all seem too real.

    Obituaries have occasionally been the source of contention in dh's and my families. When my mil died, my sil did the obituary, which was insanely, embarrassingly long, and named every single doctor and nurse who had cared for mil by name, but didn't include names of the grandchildren. That was maddening, yet nobody dared say anything for fear of offending sil.

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  14. I read the obits. Every single day. And I'm only 33, which makes my friends think I'm morbid. I also love cemeteries and grave stones for the history and art and peacefulness. I didn't start reading obits until I moved to Utah. People here could make obit writing a college level class.

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  15. I also love obits when they say something weird/funny on the line under the person's name. Like: "gone fishin:" (Really? You want people to think that Grandpa's just gone fishing?") or "It was fun while it lasted". Those comments just crack me up.

    If the deceased is older, I really love when there is a picture of them when they were younger as well as a recent picture. It's so fascinating to see them side by side.

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  16. My aunt reads them daily, figuring if she's not listed, it's bound to be a good day right from the start. 🙂

    I do like to read them, too. I've written one, at the age of 23, for my best friend at the request of her parents. I also wrote the eulogy for her funeral, which my dad read for the family. It was without a doubt the most difficult piece of writing I've ever done, and it's also on my top ten list of "Things I'm Glad About." I had so many tender moments talking with her husband, parents, siblings, and grandparents over that long, miserable weekend. I still pull out my draft copy and read it when I get to feeling lonely for her.

    My own should be short: "A good baker, loving wife and mother, and fond of puns."

    That about covers it, really.

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  17. Michelle– I think your mom's obit has all of the elements of what I like best of Utah obits and none of the things that make me roll my eyes.

    I'm actually working on a paper on obits for my grad school application, and one of the ones that's had me laughing lately is for a guy whose funeral was being held at an LDS church somewhere in Salt Lake. And the last line said something like, "and after the burial we'll all meet at [address] for drinking."

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  18. Hm. Having lost a child unexpectedly, I am deeply offended by the thought of someone being "giddy" over the prospect of being entertained by his obituary. I assume others would feel the same way. Having lived through the horrors of hospital life, surgeries, gore and death…I no longer consider it a form of entertainment. It only causes disgust and pain that others foam at the mouth over the new gory flick at the theater, or the latest shocking L&O: SVU, or revel in the details of ER and other similarly themed novels. Must be nice to still be entertained by it, but its my living nightmare that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Its because of people like you that I will never tell others the details of my son's horrific last moments of life. It would be too "entertaining".

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  19. sb- I'm so sorry for your loss and sorry that this post touched a raw nerve for you. You're right that the death of a child is always tragic, and not a funny subject. To a certain extent, I think you misinterpreted the point of the post. By reading obituaries, and the sometimes funny and idiosyncratic details their loved ones chose to spotlight, I actually gain a greater appreciation for the people who lived and their families and the things they value. They also help me understand my culture and community to a larger degree. But honestly, I'm not laughing at your pain, or at the pain of anyone who has lost a loved one.

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  20. You don't know me but I was sent a link to your blog by a friend who knows that I read the obituaries every day! I'm not very old but I'm surprised how often I find obituaries for people I know.
    When my father was killed in a car accident it was a sweet experience to work with my sisters as we crafted the obituary. Even though we didn't have any time to prepare for his passing, somehow writing the obituary helped us to sum up his essence and come to terms with the the fact that he was gone.
    When my husband deployed to Aghanistan I kept a working draft of my husband's obituary running through my head knowing that if I should need to write one I would need to give it significant amounts of thought beforehand. Fortunately, he came home to me but every time he goes on an extended trip that obituary in my head gets another edit.

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  21. sb- I to am sorry for your loss. I have worked with many families who have lost children in my professional work.

    I think you bring up an interesting issue (though I don't think it's related to the authors intention) which is that our culuture is obessed with the violent and ugly sides of death (i.e crime dramas etc). Yet as a whole we are very death-phobic when it comes to dealing with actual death and creating appropriate rituals around them.

    I don't think anyone gets joy from reading a child's obituary. I am moved by the reading of obituaries. Not in an "enetertainment" way but in a sobering way, an appreciative way. Especially those which give insights into a person's life, loves, and even idiosyncrasies. I think reading them can expand our deeper sense of humanity and an appreciation for death and loss. I often think if we read more about death, and "real experiences with death" (unlike those glamorized on TV) we would approach mortality differently.

    I also find it interesting to note the grief rituals for various groups and cultures- wakes, getting together for drinks and reminiscences, extnesive viewings and services, etc.

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  22. sb- Part of the reason I read them is to "Mourn with those that mourn". When the obit comes at the end of a rich full life that mourning is less intense, but when it is a child or some other obviously a tragedy I cry and my heart in a small measure aches for their loss. That is the same reason I read the sad and tragic news, not for a voyeuristic thrill but because it helps keep my heart connected to the human family. I read the happy news for the same reason.

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  23. I often read the obituaries when I'm on my break at work. There's something interesting about them…what is it exactly? Especially if they are younger, meaning under 60. I always wonder how they died and who they left behind. Death is such a hard thing.

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  24. I work in a nursing home and so due to that have started reading that portion. When I see one of our patients listed, usually cut it out and bring to share w/other coworkers. I feel it is a way of respecting them, I feel to glance at that is a final courtesy and kindness I can give a former patient.

    Sometimes I feel like I've known the patient beyond a patient if I know something in the obituary..ie names of kids, jobs, honors in life. Other times I feel ashamed and that I didn't do enough to know the person when I read of honors or common experiences in their obituatary.

    To the person who lost a child, when I read this section and see the name/picture of a child or young person, I feel sadness more than anything- for those so young don't belong on that page of the paper.

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  25. I've participated in writing obituaries. A lot of pain went into the process, and I've seen a lot of horrid ones.

    Locally, they charge to put them in the paper. I'm not interested in paying to have one printed, so I may end up doing without when I die 😉

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  26. To be a bit off the subject…I'm not an obit reader, but one of the most comforting services I've attended was one for an elderly friend who had been a bit eccentric during the last years of her life. Her sons gave her eulogy with a mixture of happy and sad tears for their loss, but told those of us in attendance about funny incidents they'd been a part of and had witnessed during those later years. We laughed out loud (at a funeral service), cried with them and shared their happy memories as well as their loss. Perhaps not all, but I came away with a smile on my face, knowing that she had left her sons memories that made them smile. It was unbelievably comforting. I'd want my funeral service to have the same lingering effect for my sons.

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  27. I love obituaries because it connects me to other people in new ways. I love the wonderful differences and the powerful similarities between all of us. I love reading the stories of people's rich and interesting lives. It connects me to a world that I cannot otherwise access.

    Plus, on occasion, I've been informed of the death of someone I know but have lost contact with. Which was probably the original intent of printing them, eh?

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  28. I see obits as a little like reading others' family histories.

    Also, for a while when I feared death, I had a desire to read the ways people died, how old they were. I was comforted when the youngs were not as numerous as the olds. It in a way helped me sort through some of my feelings about if I might die (there was a while when I thought I might be dying).

    Stephen Covey talks about beginning w/ the end in mind as part of living a good life, so the process of sorting through what you might want said does give a guide to look to how you might want to live. Classic Seven Habits…I think that is #1.

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  29. I don't have a habit of reading obits-but I don't get a newspaper. I have read three obits of my uncles that I found so touching and I learned things I hadn't known about them. Made me sad I hadn't worked harder to know the while they were alive.

    I do think about my own mortality when I go out for a run-I carry my cell phone with my ICE info. I also worry when my husband is late that he was in an accident–if he doesn't answer his phone. But haven't written our obituaries.

    My fil passed away suddenly a month ago and he was not prepared. It has been very hard for my husband to take care of all his affairs. When I go, I've told my family I want a pine box. And I'm starting to declutter now.

    I hope thinking about my own funeral helps me be a kinder, more service oriented person so that people only have nice things to say about me.

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  30. I read an obituary once of a man who had survived being in a concentration camp in the Holocaust. I was very inspired by the line that read, "He did not let this experience define his life." The obituary then went on to list the service this man performed for others. There is no shortage of people in this world who let their bad experiences define who they are. It is nice to know that we can move past even the worst experiences if we really want to.

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  31. I, too, like reading obits, not in a voyeuristic way, but to learn about other people's lives and to feel connected to humanity, as some others have said. Like Jennie, it also drives me crazy when the cause of death isn't listed; I'm left to wonder what happened, and it's unsettling. This post got me thinking that I'd better write my own obituary, because my husband is not a writer and wouldn't do it justice, I'm afraid. It would be horrifying to me, as a former English major, if there were grammatical errors in my obituary!

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  32. I too enjoy reading the obituaries. I've been reading them most of my adult life. Every location we've lived (Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Fransico, LA) seems to have a definite "flavor" of what is considered vital to tell about a person. I'm also surprised at how often I find a connection to someone (a survivor) I know. Like the others, it helps me feel connected to humanity.

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  33. Like Jennie, it also drives me crazy when the cause of death isn’t listed; I’m left to wonder what happened, and it’s unsettling.

    I wonder why this is, though. Any thoughts? I can't help but wonder if some of it is somehow in seeing the reason, we can sort through it better.

    But I wonder if some of it is that somewhere inside we think 'that can't happen to me' and somehow reading obituaries either can strengthen or challenge that notion. For me, I used to read more to try to convince myself that it wasn't going to be me or something. It was more out of fear than true interest.

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  34. I think we need to read these things to process our own mortality. But also to appreciate the life that we DO have. It's like a checkpoint for us, are we doing all the right things, are we prepared if our final moment comes upon us, just as theirs has?

    I've always liked reading the obituaries, as I feel it's the least I can do for those that have gone, one final tribute to them, to recognize who they were and what their lives were like.

    After 9/11, I had a fear the world was coming to an end, and I would read the obituaries and think those people were "lucky" not having to live in who knows what kind of future we had ahead of us. It was months before I realized, ok, the world is not ending. But reading those obituaries was a way for me to heal, in a way.

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