In the Event of My Obituary

So, I was having lunch with a friend.  Over the entree, she said she would like to die quickly and unexpectedly.  A heart attack, say, would be her preferred exit.
I really like lunches and friends like this.  I mean, who needs small talk?
I chimed in with my heartfelt conviction that — if anybody asks me my preference — I don’t want to go that fast.  I have too many significant memories from the time I really did think I might be dying, when I had breast cancer in 1995.  It was a time that, however temporarily, changed my life.  I spent every minute I could telling my husband and children and friends how much I loved them and hearing how they felt about me.

It was as if a strong wind had swept through my life and blown away everything small and niggling.  I didn’t want to die without saying every important thing I needed to say.  I didn’t want to save my good clothes for special occasions.  I wore perfume every day.  I tried to take pleasure whenever I could.  What had I been saving myself for, I kept wondering?

And, as I told my friend, I went for six months without ever having to pick up the check for lunch.  Believe me, nobody’s cheap enough to let a cancer patient pay her own way.

But time passes and everything seems OK and it’s easy to go back to being the same emotionally constipated person you always were, splitting the lunch tab with your friends.  I’ve always thought 9/11 was very much like a cancer diagnosis.  Something momentous happens and you believe you’re forever changed.  But it’s amazing (and kind of depressing) how quickly you return to your old habits and ways of being.

NEVERTHELESS.  I still don’t want to drop dead, if I get the choice.  It’s kind of like I worry about going missing and having my husband inform the police about my description.  I’m pretty sure he would get my weight wrong.

Similarly, I want a little time before I die to get a few things straight.  I don’t want to write my own obituary (how self-involved and self-referential can you get?), but would like to hang around so I could gently prompt people around me with little reminders, such as, “Remember that great bon mot I spilled out on New Year’s Eve in 1999, before the fire department showed up to put out our bonfire?  Well, you might want to include that in my obituary.”

I’d also want to be there to set up a few more rules about my obituary, such as:

1) No, I did not fight a valiant battle ever in my life.  Not for anything.  I’m also not brave.

2) No, l probably wasn’t uncomplaining, either, unless I was in a coma.

3) You know this business about “never met a stranger”?  Well, I’ve met plenty of strangers in my life.

4) I’ve also suffered a few fools, gladly and not-so-gladly, but I hate cliches, so don’t even think about that one.

5) My husband is loving, but there’s no need to call him that in my obituary.  He’s also the love of my life, but that’s between him and me.

6) Please, I don’t want to leave anybody behind to “cherish” my memory.

7) I don’t think I ever “lit up a room” in my life, although if I’m cremated, I suppose that might be a distinct possibility.

8) Don’t forget about New Year’s Eve, 1999.  And any other smart or meaningful thing I’ve said or written.  It’s even more important than getting my weight (115) right.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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15 comments… add one
  • A friend and I have agreed to supervise each other’s obits. Because really you can’t trust your children to say the right thing

  • msue Link

    My in-laws made it abundantly clear: neither wanted an obituary of any kind. Zilch. They made sure I understood that point as clearly as the one about no funeral service. We honored their wishes, and people who really knew them never questioned it at all. It was the perfect coda to the lives of two really cool people.

  • I love this one, Ruth! Right to the heart of the matter. Perfect.

  • merr Link

    I like your list, Ruth. Keep it real before, during and after. Smart.

  • Robin Link

    I don’t want to die instantly because I’d like at least three months of having a good enough appetite to eat and drink all the things I’ve avoided for health/calories reasons.

  • Donna J. Link

    As always, timing is everything isn’t it? I don’t want to go suddenly–what if I still haven’t read Ulysses? And I don’t want to linger and wear out my welcome. Is there a good way to exit? Perhaps one could stage a funeral like Liz Carpenter did (three times!) before she died–then at least we could make sure they serve good food and have the right people say the right things about us.

  • Oh, dear. I may need to keep this list. I’ve become the de facto obit / eulogy writer in the family.

  • Stephanie Frogge Link

    …and everybody doesn’t NOT consider me their best friend and my smile hasn’t lit up anything except my orthodontist’s checking account back in the 70’s…

  • marc leavitt Link


    It’s bothering; we should be wary
    Of the flower-strewn obituary.
    When we die, we’re only dead,
    No angels weep beside our bed.
    Please, spare the useless euphemisms,
    That try to soft-sell cataclysms.
    We don’t “pass on,” we’re merely done,
    As though we never had begun.
    The only place we were, is here,
    And then we’re not; that should be clear.

  • Like Rox, I’m the de facto obit writer in the family, so I’m paying attention.

    I like your thought of gently nudging people about things you’ve done. I’ve been mentally writing my mom’s obit for years (she’s still here, I’m glad to say), and we’re past the time when she can remember when she graduated from college and what she did after that.

    A list of these milestones stashed away in a drawer would be really helpful!

  • Love your obit instructions. What writer needs clichés in their obituary.

  • Craig Smith Link

    Good one Ruth.
    You and I had a mutual friend whose mom wrote a lulu of a eulogy for herself. I enjoyed it immensely. There were points in it I thought it might be Carol Channing we were there for.
    Amongst my hillbilly clan if one leaves a microphone unattended at a funeral a scuffle will break out with white shoed men with pompadours trying to save your soul whether it is lost or not

  • bonehead Link

    Dear Ruth,
    Death talk is always good for getting down to basics. I enjoy it because it’s not really about after death but the living that goes on before death. Shucks that’s just getting in touch with reality. Some great comments on this topic too, I could sit in the ‘amen section’ at the campfire with Robin, Marc & Craig, take a long drag on something bad for me, and nod yep we’re done 🙂 “…the same emotionally constipated person you always were”, Ruth you can turn a phrase with the best of them that makes this living part fun 🙂

  • Having watched both of my parents go, my dad quickly and unexpected with a heart attack and my mom with a prolonged lung illness, I decided that I would rather go as my dad did. No pain or diaper changing for me. But I suspect that we don’t get to choose….

  • Great list. Open, honest and direct, just like you are.

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