All Saints Day–Let’s Talk Obituaries

“In Western Christian theology, the day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven,” Wikipedia informs us. “The festival has assumed the role of general commemoration of the dead.”

What a good day to ponder writing obituaries!

I occasionally teach a class titled “Put a Little Life in Your Obituary,” both locally and online through Story Circle Network. In both formats, I’ve found it a surprisingly popular subject, and surprisingly entertaining for small group work.

Since few of us can count on being considered significant enough at the time of our death to warrant a beat reporter assigned to summarize our lives, it behooves us to help our family members (or the funeral director) get the facts right, as well as the anecdotes and observations that will help convey a sense of who we were as individuals.

“If I don’t write it down, who will know what I accomplished?” said one student in the first obituary class I taught. She had been instrumental in the feminist movement in Chicago in the 1970s. She had served on the board of the National Organization for Women, and contributed to Ms. Magazine. But now she’s retired and returned to her former hometown. No one in her family is likely to consider her work on behalf of women’s rights important enough to mention to the funeral director. For her, that work was her life’s purpose, the culmination of experiences and values formed as a young woman in the 1960s. I don’t think it is hubris for her to want her contribution to the Women’s Movement remembered. I’m glad she wrote it down.

In the mid-2000s, a secret escaped from the closet—a lot of people love to read obituaries. Publication of two books—If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska, by Heather Lende in 2005, and The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson in 2006, brought to light the pleasure a great many of us take in this abbreviated form of personal history.

I like the lessons in social history delivered slice by slice through obituaries. Right now, the passage of time is bringing us a spate of deaths of figures central to the social upheavals of the 1960s, from civil rights pioneers to musicians and artists. Who could NOT be interested in these obituaries, for the light they shed on the mystery of what the 1960s might mean in the bigger picture of American history?

In The Dead Beat, Johnson humorously lays out the formula typically used for obituaries–which are as formulaic as haiku. She’s named the parts as follows:

  • The Descriptive
  • The Bad News
  • The Song and Dance
  • The Resume
  • The Send-off
  • The Lifeboat

I encourage you to take a look at her book (or participate in one of my classes) to learn more about each of these parts, and how to string them together to create your own personal history in obituary form.

And for the pure pleasure of story? Pick up If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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1 Response to All Saints Day–Let’s Talk Obituaries

  1. patricia j jacobs says:

    thank you for your help]!!!!! i the outline help me write euglogy for my sister


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