I've been thinking about death lately. It all started when I found myself reading interesting obituaries that have gone viral. They don't just state the basic facts: birth, job, children and spouse. They reveal funny and touching anecdotes. They are beautiful, tiny memoirs! Recently there were two obits for Leroy Bill Black, one from his wife and one from his girlfriend right next to each other in the newspaper! Up until recently, funeral home staff or a newspaper reporter usually wrote obituaries but now regular people are taking matters into their own hands.
Tom Varabedian, a newspaper guy from Massachusetts, was recently showcased in The Wall Street Journal. He has written thousand of obituaries and now teaches a class in obituary writing. I recently had an email exchange with him because I was curious as to whether people changed their lives after writing their obituaries, wanting to right wrongs or to pursue unrealized dreams.
"Have your classes opened a can of worms for anyone?"
"No bucket of worms, not even one night crawler."
I was curious because my family used to give out scholarships to our local high school and we required an essay. My favorite prompts were, "Write Your Obituary" and "Write The Book Jacket Blurb For Your Memoir." We were hoping the applicants would be able to show some vision as to how they wanted their lives to unfold and perhaps help them, through the process, to set some goals.
The people in his classes clearly want to control how they would be remembered. Perhaps Mr. Black should have taken Mr. Varabedian's class before he died! I wonder if this trend could be a reaction in part to the quick and tidy way many of us send off our loved ones. I got to thinking about this after the death of a family member.
Last week I went to a funeral of a man named Richard who I didn't know very well. He was ninety-two and a first cousin once removed of my husband. As with a sudden death, I needed to rearrange my plans to go to his wake. In theory, I think that life should stop when someone dies, so that their life can be properly celebrated, but in practice, I often try to attend these events as expeditiously as possible.
Wakes are easy; you can zip in, give your condolences, and zip out and back to your life. Going to a funeral is an "in for a penny, in for a pound" scenario. Once you make the commitment to go, you dress up, attend the service, travel in a long line to the cemetery, and go to the reception after. If you're very close to the family you may go back to the house.
In addition to the McDonald's drive-thru mentality of attending death events, I've noticed another interesting trend when someone dies: no funerals or memorials at all. I've heard reasons ranging from "she donated her body to science and didn't want a fuss" to "we couldn't find an agreeable date for the funeral." Hypocrite that I am, I hope when I die, my family goes the route of the Homegoing events that black communities create for their dearly departed. Those are fantastic celebrations of life!
I went to Richard's wake but had not planned on going to the funeral. His widow, Laura, who I like and respect and seemed genuinely glad to see me, looked me in the eye and asked me if I would be attending the service. I was like a deer in the headlights.
"I don't know."
"OK, I'll see you soon then."
When someone dies whom you didn't know well, it may seem difficult to know if you should go to the funeral. My seemingly flexible rule of thumb is that if you are wondering whether or not you should go to a funeral, you should go. It means so much to the family when people they don't expect to come make the effort.
When my dad died some years ago, I was touched when unexpected people attended his funeral. I was chatting with one of these folks in my dad's office afterwards. He was shocked when he spotted the penny pyramid paperweight that had been on his desk since forever. I learned that he had asked my dad to be his confirmation sponsor when he was a kid, and he'd given my him the paperweight as a thank you. The little stories that are told at funerals and wakes are gifts to the grieving families.
I am so glad that I attended Richard's funeral. It was truly inspiring to hear the stories of such a wonderful man. At age fifty, he married a young widow with four young boys that he raised as his own, along with the son he had with his new wife. He was an orthodontist who didn't retire until he was eighty-seven. I can't even imagine how many beautiful smiles he created over the decades of care. He always followed the rules. I learned that he never exceeded the speed limit, even with his five boys telling him to go faster. Twice he left his orthodontic practice to serve in both WWII and the Korean War. He was truly an officer and a gentleman.
As I listened to the stories and the eulogies that reflected the love for this man, I thought of the phrase, "Begin with the end in mind," from Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I wondered if Richard had planned his life with the end in mind because it certainly seemed he had a plan or perhaps a code of honor that he followed. I am so glad that I accepted the invitation to celebrate his life because he has inspired me to take a closer look at mine. I figure I'd start by writing my obituary.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a teaching studio in Western Springs. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. Check out the Doodle Art website at www.doodleartanddesign.com.