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    Getting Write: Pen Your Obituary, Plan Your Funeral By Susanna P. Barton

    By Susanna P. Barton


    Greetings, Grand Planners! There’s no better way to share the love with your people than to get “write” with them – that is, to consider the details of your life story, the particulars of how you wish to be celebrated when you’re gone, and how you will document it all in a way that makes the difficult tasks of obituary-writing and funeral-planning easier on your loved ones. This compassionate act is Step 2 of Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps, “Pen your obituary and plan your funeral.” It’s about memorializing our lives and showing friends and family how much we care.


    In a July 2018 piece for the New York Times, Indiana University professor Susan Gubar explained with eloquence why writing an obituary for yourself is such a gift for others. In her piece, she stated:

    “…this unique assignment is psychologically beneficial not only for the author and the author’s survivors. It may be crucial in getting the facts straight and in conveying the import of an existence as well as the values informing it. Far from seeming narcissistic, undertaking a self-obituary can be a form of summation and of caregiving for those who may be in need of direction after we are gone.”


    It sounds so horribly sad or vain to assemble the story of your life and plan the particulars of your death, but it is actually one of the most valuable, humble offerings we can make for the people we leave behind. See, here’s the problem: If you die without communicating important particulars of your life or directions on how you’d like to be remembered, living loved ones must blindly write your obituary and plan your funeral during an already stressful, sad, and emotional time.


    The solution? Sit down and hammer out an obituary (or at least some essential dates, accolades, and accomplishments) and a few thoughts on your funeral planning. This is a tough assignment, but you can do it! Then tuck these writings away in your death binder or cache of “important documents,” the topic of my last column in agebuzz.


    Like most important life tasks, the process of collecting facts about your life, writing an obituary, and considering funeral plans begins with reflection. I, for example, might sit down at the beach with a hefty pour of chardonnay. Whatever your best-case thinking place looks like, go there and get busy itemizing your major life events, achievements, and people who have been meaningful in your life. Think about your values and beliefs and how you want to be remembered.


    At a minimum, go with dates, times, and places. This is easy – and will be extremely helpful for your loved ones later. Consider graduation and wedding dates, names of your parents, siblings, spouses, and children, degrees you may have achieved and when (and from where!), places you worked, and organizations important to you. Maybe some significant accomplishments define you, so write those down, too! Was travel your thing? Reflect on a few trips that influenced your life in some way.


    In a March 18, 2023 Writer’s Digest piece by Dana Sachs called “6 Tips for Writing Obituaries That Create a Fitting Tribute, the author suggests some helpful parameters for this important task, including these thoughts: “Keep it short and publish it locally; Achievement is boring, so keep the focus on the details that truly capture a personality; Embrace the contradictions; That said, don’t use an obituary to express your anger and grudges; Welcome other people’s contributions; and (remember that) A tribute is for the bereaved, and it’s not about your fabulous writing.” I thought these were such great suggestions for telling a story that authentically memorializes your life.


    There are a few other items to consider when penning your obituary. Always consider parameters like writing in the third person and length. Obituaries are sometimes edited for style and are usually priced per column inch, so be careful because it adds up! When you’re done, file the information somewhere safe and tell your loved ones where they can find it in a pinch. If you wrote your obituary long ago, think about dusting it off and updating it now and again. Writing your obituary is an empowering way to take control of your narrative and leave a lasting impression on your loved ones. It allows you to preserve your legacy in a way that genuinely reflects who you are and how you want to be remembered.


    Not really a writer? There are plenty of online resources to help you get started or do it for you – and many places to store your work. A great place to stick your toe in the water is, which is where most online obituaries are curated. They have some tools and resources there that are incredibly helpful – and mostly free!


    Perhaps the more challenging exercise is thinking about your funeral arrangements. You may be a detail person and want to think about all the little things, like songs you’d like to be played at your service, what kind of casket you’d like, or that you prefer to be environmentally sensitive and be cremated, cocooned, or scattered. One older friend asked me to help plan her funeral – outside, in front of her house, with an open guest list, good music, and a fleet of those “fancy port-a-potties” with actual sinks and good smell-makers galore.


    Another friend’s parents planned and paid for the whole shebang ahead of time – a loving act that included NO PLANS for a funeral. That, too, I think, is a tremendous show of love to the surviving family.


    AARP published a helpful story in December 2021 by Leanne Potts called “8 Tips for Funeral Planning. While you’re imagining your funeral arrangements – maybe at the beach, with your toes in the sand like I envision – think about these general considerations from the AARP article: “Learn what’s involved; plan in advance but don’t pay in advance; find out average costs; shop around; understand the package deal; buy only what you want; consider joining a memorial society; and talk it over and write it all down.” Regarding the payment advice from AARP, I would additionally offer that paying in advance is actually a most loving gift, as long as you are well advised on what that investment includes. Do your homework and don’t be taken advantage of! This may be a good opportunity to involve family members who can help ensure you are making the best choices. If your faith community is important to you, I’d also suggest talking with the leader of your place of worship to get a sense of its rituals and programs. And again, write it all down and tell someone you love where to find it!


    It’s important to remember that most of the really hard, sad, nitty gritty, in-the-moment decisions and planning will be managed by whatever funeral home you or your family select to handle your remains after you’ve passed. You and your people don’t need to know exactly what to do when – the funeral service provider will take the reins at that point and direct you.


    When my father passed away at the hospital, the nurses asked which funeral home we wanted to use and they took it from there. After that, the funeral home associate gave us instructions on next steps, as did the pastor from the church we selected to use for his memorial service. So while it’s helpful for survivors to know what kind of funeral experience you’d appreciate, no one needs to know all the particulars of the “hows”. Fortunately, there will be compassionate, experienced people on the scene at every turn to direct all next steps. So, cross those concerns off your planning list!


    I’ll say it one more time: Whatever it is you envision for your obituary or funeral, write it all down and tell someone about it. Do whatever brings you peace because that will, in turn, bring your people peace when it comes to knowing how to memorialize you appropriately when you’re gone. And that, my friends, is a most generous and legacy-building show of love.


    Susanna Barton, a member of Jacksonville Mayor Donna Degan’s subcommittee on elder care, has worked as a professional writer in Jacksonville for nearly 30 years and is the founder of the Grand Plans online community, podcast, newsletter, and blog.  Her book Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps and its accompanying workbook, the Grand Planner, are available in local stores and on Amazon. For more information,