Friday, December 04, 2009

A Writing Exercise ... In Passing

from Jacqueline

I’ve always liked thumbing through the array of classes offered via community education programs, and I have to confess, it’s not just to see if there’s any particular course I would like to enroll in – I just love some of the descriptions, whether for flower arranging (“A Winter Flourish – decorating your home with winter blooms, berries and foliage”), pottery (“Learn how to throw a pot!” Hmmm, reckon I learned how to throw a pot years ago – and lucky for the guy in question, I missed!), or Hatha Yoga for the Over-50’s. ("Supple up for the rest of your life ..." What happened to “fifty is the new thirty?”) The description in one catalog for the Alexander Technique had me giggling for some time: “Bring a towel and six paperback books.” The mind boggled, though I have since found out how the towel and six paperback books are employed in this particular class.

A few days ago the local winter community education catalog arrived, so I flicked through the pages to see what might draw me out during the dark months. And somewhere between Basketry and Acrylics for Beginners ($10 materials fee, payable at class), was the following:

Write Your Own Obituary.

Well, that made me sit up and take a second look. Write my own obituary? Frankly, it gave me the creeps, and having followed the advice for many years to “be careful of the images you put out into the universe,” I found myself wondering if it was such a good thing to start tinkering around with one’s obit. Isn’t that a bit like tempting fate?

When I was a kid it annoyed me that my mother went straight to the obits in the local paper. I think she must have been about forty when she started lingering a little longer over that particular section. She would not look up from the paper, but you could hear the commentary from the other side of the broadsheet, punctuated with occasional drags on her cigarette, after which her hand would come around the side of the newspaper to flick ash in the ashtray.

“Oh dear, that woman was only forty-two.”
“Fifty-five and she went in her sleep.”
“Ninety? Well, he had a good innings.”
“Listen to this ....”

And so it went on. I used to complain about this habit, thinking it ghoulish ("Oh, Muuuuum, you're really creepy."). Trouble is, I have been doing it a bit myself lately, and I know what it is – looking for deceased persons who are the same age as me. I’m not as bad as my mother – I mean, I don’t really linger over the obits. It’s just that, if I happen to land at that page, I’ll have a quick scan. But – writing my own obit? I wondered who might want to go to such a class. Control freaks who can’t bear anyone else writing their post-mortem biography? Someone who wants everyone to forget the serial marriages and a drinking habit?

As you can see, I’ve thought a bit about this now, even though I hate to play fast and loose with fate. I wonder if writing one’s own obituary ahead of time gives one something to aspire to – a sort of template of behavior, values and accomplishments to bring to life, before death, if you see what I mean. Hmmm – now, what would I like my obit to include?

I think I would like to be remembered well. I’d like it to say that I made people laugh, that my home was warm and welcoming. I’d like it to say something about my love of nature, of animals, of wild places. I’d like to be remembered as adventurous. I’d like my obit to say how important my family and friends were to me. I would like to be remembered as an energetic sort (“She rode horses every day until she was almost 80.”), and as generous (“After winning the Super lotto Jackpot in 2010, Jacqueline was on a quest to give almost all her windfall away, leaving only enough to sustain her as she grew older”). I would like it to say I loved telling stories, one of which enchanted the judges of the Mann Booker Prize, who stunned the critics when they awarded the prize to a mystery writer. I think I would like it to say that she passed away quietly in her sleep in her own home (no need for dramatics at the end, make it simple, that’s my motto).

I’ve got to tell you, writing that paragraph was a really, really weird experience – and as you can see, I wrote it on the fly, didn’t think much about it because it was a bit scary. And I don’t think I will ever do that again. Writing the bio for the back of the book is hard enough, without looking back on what hasn’t happened yet (regarding Super lotto – only a matter of time). So, I don’t think I’ll be lining up for that class.

Mind you, there’s always: “Tune Up Your Brain!” or “How To Give A Great Foot Massage!” (Bring a towel).

Seen any good classes lately? Or ... what would you like to see in your obit?


  1. I've been writing my own mock obituary for 30 years. Car plunging off cliff. Lost at sea windsurfing off Maui. Diving off an apartment balcony with a jealous husband in pursuit. Keeling over at the keyboard just as I typed, "Egad! So the killer is *(^%_)KRF%$#

    Then once,imagining the G-5 I'd hitched a ride on crashed, I realized my obit would be the last graf, in order of importance of the passengers.

  2. I suppose my obit might read "She turned into her mum after all." I guess we all do, whether its reading obits, or that look we shoot at our own kids to stop them in their tracks.

    I've never thought about my obit, but I have given some thought to what would be etched on my protagonists headstone:
    It All Went Sideways

    Have a great weekend

  3. I'm a total class junkie and I learn something important about myself every time I tackle a new skill or a bit of knowledge.

    As for my obit, I dunno. Perhaps this: she excelled at anything that had no hope whatsoever of ever making money. Now if you'll excuse me I have to shop for materials for my latest class How to Construct a Gingerbread House.

  4. James O. Born12/04/2009 10:28 AM

    I took a wood working class with my father and wife about twenty years ago. Of course they made neat, intricate pieces and I made an entertainment center that collapsed under its own weight.

    No obit yet.


  5. from Jacqueline

    Paul, I think those endings may be glamorous, but really, really scary. Not my idea of a way to go. Mind you, probably better than just wasting away at home.

    Carson, you made me laugh - the comment about turning into your mum. Guess I could be going the same way (but at least I'll still be dancing in my 80's!)

    Patty, I remember your knitting classes and the tale of the socks. My cousin once taught a class on "the law" at her local community ed center, and said her most interesting students were two elderly ladies who were working their way through the catalog in alphabetical order. They were on to macrame next.

    And Jim, your experience sounds really cool - the family that learns together .... But I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that entertainment center collapsed.

  6. Jacqueline, I remember an epitaph from a tombstone back home in Key West which I believe is a classic. It reads: "I told you I was sick."

  7. I was once asked what I would like my tombstone to read. I've never thought of my obituary though! I like to think that my tombstone would have an inspiring quote that I had planted in the ears of my three sons that happened to make a pass around the world and bettered the lives of millions. But it will most likely say, "She made the best toaster waffles this side of the Mississippi!"

  8. Hi Jackie, I'm a day late checking in. Sorry about that.

    I worked for three years at the Arizona Daily Star writing obituaries for the local illuminati and updating obituaries for the famous who might come to an end. I got good at it.

    But my favorite obit comes from my friend Judy who wrote when her husband Dick died: "He lived in San Francisco for 27 years, never once visiting Marin County across the bridge. He did not believe they had sidewalks there."

  9. Mike, I love that line - "I told you I was sick." I hope I can think of something a bit like that before I go.

    Christine, I think being remembered for toaster waffles is a pretty amazing - there's a lot of happiness in a toaster waffle.

    And Louise, what a great obit - never to have crossed the bridge. I would have crumbled with curiosity. And I am sure you wrote amazing obits. Interesting the number of great authors who had obit writing on their resume.