The past year I began my own obituary and posted my progress here (2/28/2014). Of course it was tongue-in-cheek humor, and parts of it may even get used someday. Writing your own obituary is not fall-on-the-floor hilarious, but unusual enough to be mildly entertaining for me.
The obituaries of today are a modern development. Newspapers once published only tiny “death notices,” just a few lines long, cryptically stating no more than the time and place of the funeral. They assumed you already knew the person and their family and had your own opinions of them. No creative writing was required. I give an example of one from the 1930s in my posting Obituaries of July 21, 2008. Communities were smaller then.
Your own obituary is not the problem—it’s preparing an obituary for someone else, someone you have loved and shared your life with for many years, someone who means more to you than your own life. That’s what you should prepare before it is needed, but how do you write it? How do you say something for which there are no words? How do you describe all of the good things about a person in such a small space? Do you fumble around with the standard, meaningless clichés? Do you fill the space with sterile facts? Do you attempt to illustrate the person’s essence with funny anecdotes?
But nothing is funny about the situation. Not funny at all. Whatever you say does not sound adequate, not expressing the pain you are feeling, falling far short of what the person deserves. Just when you want to do your best, you are blowing it and you know it.
When you read an obituary of a stranger, it often sounds stilted and pompous. It probably sounds stilted and pompous to the writer, too. But they have been suddenly handed an impossible task for which they are totally unprepared and are doing the best they can on the fly. Many give up on the actual writing themselves and merely rubber-stamp whatever the funeral director comes up with, accepting their assurances that it is exceptionally well-written and appropriate.