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Outside the Box: Why you should write your own obituary — and how to do it

Want the last word? Write your own obituary.

It’s the final opportunity to tell the world you were a great person and that others should regret never having known you. You can write what you want because, in most newspapers, the obituaries are essentially paid ads—and pricey, to boot. No one is going to challenge your obituary’s veracity, at least not publicly, unless it’s outrageous.

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Was she really well liked by everyone she met? Was his spouse the love of his life? Was she a gifted painter? Did she really love her job? Will he reunite with family who are already in heaven? No one can refute or confirm that last statement, but many believe or hope it’s true.

Adjectives are used generously: passionate, wonderful, altruistic, witty. There’s no limit to superlatives. Examples: “She was unfailingly selfless and kind.” “He loved everyone unconditionally and radiated warmth.”

Understandably, there are positive and even ebullient words about the afterlife. An obituary for a woman who loved to garden said her family knew “she is already planting giant fields of sunflowers outside of her big, colorful mansion surrounded by sunsets and everlasting rainbows.” Beautiful images, for sure.

Of course, if you’re a public figure, a newspaper will write a “news” story about you that might include comments from family, peers and friends, but won’t make fanciful claims. In fact, it might be unflattering. This happened at a small daily newspaper in Pennsylvania where I worked. A story about the death of a local college coach mentioned something negative in the man’s past. His angry son came to the newspaper office and slugged my managing editor.

But most of us can close the chapters of our life by writing what we want to believe is true. For example, you or your family can indicate how you left this earth. You can die, pass away or transition into eternal life. If you die peacefully, it’s assumed death was anticipated. If you die suddenly, it was unexpected.

You don’t need to say the cause of death, but it’s good to see pleas for COVID-19 vaccines from victims’ families. Many young people have died prematurely because of opioid addictions, and the obituaries often mention their heartbreaking struggles.

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Almost all obituaries list the facts of a person’s birthplace, parents, survivors and family who died before them. Details of funerals, services, burial sites and memorial contributions fill out the post. Newspapers have online forms to help with this process. But if you’ve been lying about your age all your life, you might not want to include your birth date or age.

Newspapers will also reserve the right to refuse or reject any content before final approval. Don’t claim to have been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, unless you were.

You shouldn’t feel cheap about your last words. But be aware that the average cost for the onetime publication of an obituary in a midsize newspaper could run $200 to $300—and the longer it is, the larger the tab.

Finally, there’s the photo choice. As someone once said, a picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s an important decision. Maybe you’ll want to use the studio portrait of when you were in your prime, even though 60 years have since passed. Sometimes, it looks odd to see an obituary for an octogenarian with a photo of her as a debutante. But hey, it’s the final scene in the movie of your life. Let them remember you the way you want.

Want some pointers on how to write your obituary? Here are some links to articles that give detailed advice:

How to Write a Meaningful Obituary

How to Write the Perfect Obituary

How to write an Unforgettable Obituary

This column originally appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring last fall, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. Check out Ron’s earlier articles.

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