Have the last word, write your own obituary

 In Opinion

Probably the most read part of the newspaper, after the front page is the obituaries.

Obituaries have been around for centuries. It was the Romans who first started the practice of announcing the death of someone as a written word. Early newspapers were made from papyrus (nothing you would want to hang in the outhouse, a little reedy around the edges) and typesetting was a time consuming art. Each word being set with little tiles with letters on them.

Personals are also a prominent feature in the paper. Can you imagine in Roman times the ad “Party at Julius’s bring your own knife”? 

The word obituary comes from the Latin meaning “going down” or “ setting”.  It can also mean fall, ruin or death, personally I prefer the first definition, sounds more poetic, and less painful. The obituary has also been known as the “Bill of Mortality” or “Memorial Advertisements”, but the result; what ever the title, is to inform the public of a death.

The tone of the obituary has changed over the times. First obits were usually short and to the point, unless you remember the obituary of Pope John Paul II which was more than 13,000 words, heavy reading to say the least.

The Civil War had a huge impact on the way obituaries were written.  With so many men far away from home, it was important to make the obituary full of important details, including as many members of the family tree (even the dog would be mentioned) so that the right family would get word of the death. This trait still continues today with parents, siblings and as many relatives listed as possible; a full biographical and genealogical listing. What has changed over the times is the religious aspect of it. Many times the obituary would say things like “went to eternal rest with the Lord”, now that seems to be a thing of the past.  Recently a friend and I were having a good laugh about a couple of obituaries that she had found. One started with the line “safely in the arms of Jesus… just kidding!” The obituary went on to list all the things that this lady loved to do and how she lived every minute of her life to the fullest. She even requested that she be propped up in the corner of the funeral home with a gin-and-tonic in her hand to make her look more “natural”. 

Another one started “in sickness and in health Eric was an endearing pain in the ass”. 

Sounds like he must have been a hoot! The point of the obituary is not only to inform the public and far off relatives of a passing but also to show the many sides of a person that might not have been obvious to all.

Interestingly, during the Industrial Revolution obituaries had a tendency to focus on the person’s wealth, job status and how many years they worked.

I think that everyone should write their own obituary, maybe it would make people realize what they have or have not accomplished in their life, and the point of you will have the last word on a life well lived.

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