As an older mom, sadly, a lot of my friends’ parents are dying and some people my age are dying too. Since COVID, it’s even worse. Most of my friends’ parents are dying of natural causes because they are generally in their late seventies or older. When I see obituaries posted on social media about them, I try to read them to get a feel for who they really were.
Often the person in my mind is just Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones. Maybe I remember something else like they bought one of the millions of things I sold door to door as a child or offered me milk and cookies on a playdate with their kid. I like to read what their life was really like when they weren’t the parent of someone I know.
I read one obituary lately and it was very factual—she was born X, went to college at X, married X, had two kids, etc. I was glad to know a little more about my friend’s mom but I didn’t get a sense of who she really was. Did she like to travel? Had she mastered stilt walking? Did she play pinochle?
It got me thinking about our obituaries and what legacies we leave in them. Why are they written by someone else after we die? Who knows ourselves better than we do? Shouldn’t we be writing our own when we are still healthy enough to do so?
Knowing that we all die at some point, I want my obituary to capture the essence of who I really was and not be another “to do” on the list for my family. I have decided to write my own obituary and, after I’m gone (hopefully not soon), my family can use it or not or get some ideas from it to use in what they write.
You will see mine below and I urge you to try it too. Think back on your life. Obviously, add the facts…where you were born, if you went to college and where, your work history, family, etc. but also make it interesting and add what you loved and what made you happy. Add some humor and maybe something that no one knew about you. Make it something that when people read it, they will smile and remember the real you and the difference you made while you were on this earth. Don’t focus on how important you were but about what was important to you.
Then give it to a spouse, family member or friend for safe keeping and let them know you are not expecting them to use it verbatim or trying to be morbid but you have some things you want others to know about you when you are gone.
I think if more people did this it would help others remember us fondly after we are gone and allow them to see who we really were- not just a date we were born, a date when we died and a few facts in between. And make reading obituaries more interesting.
To test this, I looked online at the obituaries in our local paper. I didn’t know anyone who had died but I was trying to get a feel for who they were when they were alive. The first thing I did was scan the pictures. I looked for younger people first but, luckily, there were not any. Most of the pictures were just regular head shots but one woman had a picture with her dog, one man had on a cowboy hat and one woman had what looked like her high school or college graduation photo (I saw that she was born in 1929). These are the ones that caught my eye and the ones I read first. I guess my first lesson in obituaries is to have your family post an interesting picture of you so people will read it.
The woman with the dog was described as 89 sweet years young (I like that). Hers went on to describe her happiest childhood memories as going to the beach with her grandparents. It described her as an avid reader, how she loved to sail and how she completed a 100 mile bike race. She also impressed upon her children to have open minds, she exposed them to many cultures and taught them to appreciate art. I feel like I know this woman after reading it and I wish I had met her.
I read another one with a standard (i.e. boring) headshot and it was only two paragraphs- one about her family and one about her work but I didn’t get a sense of her at all. It made me a little sad.
The last one I read was about a male physician. It was mainly about his being a doctor, meeting his wife and how his two kids became doctors. I got no sense of him other than he was a doctor. When I read that his kids became doctors it made me think that his kids probably never saw him when they were growing up so they decided if they wanted to get to know him, they needed to be doctors too.
I did a little research on how to write obituaries. My two favorite pieces of advice were:
“Unfortunately, many of the obituaries we see in the newspaper and on the web fail to convey the personality or contributions of the deceased in a meaningful way. They are prepared in haste, in a fog of grief, and the stress of meeting a newspaper deadline. Instead of a meaningful tribute, they often become a string of hackneyed phrases punctuated by fill-in-the-blanks of personal information.”(www.remembranceprocees.com)
“To write a great obituary, it’s important to capture the spirit of the loved one who has passed. Compose a paragraph that describes not only what your loved one did, but also what your loved one was like. For example, focus on hobbies, passions, and personal characteristics.” (www.funeralbasics.org)
That is what my data point of one in looking at my local paper one day taught me. It made me think of what I would want my obituary to say. What was important to me that I would want other people to know about me? What legacy would I leave? Would my family really publish something a little silly if it’s what I wanted?
To make sure that I am practicing what I preach, I decided to write my own obituary. I hope that there is more to my story but here is what it could be if I died tomorrow. I hope I don’t die tomorrow but if I did, rest assured that I have lived a great life.
See mine below where I attempted to mix facts with humor and whimsy. During my obituary writing research, I also saw they said newspapers charge by the word so I might be sending my family into bankruptcy by how long mine is.
I’m going to ask my parents to do theirs as well so that when they do die (which I hope is not soon), we’ll have a feel for what they want to have the world remember about them and the lives that they lived. If you want to do your own, feel free to send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can give each other feedback.
Julie Hickey was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1968. She was born the youngest of five children so she learned to compromise at an early age, thought everyone wore hand me downs, and to get seconds at dinner you had to eat quickly and grab what was left.
Her family moved to Austin, Texas when she was two. Austin was progressive, funky and “Keep Austin weird” really speaks to the weirdness of Austin at that time. She grew up having marathon Monopoly matches, climbing trees, playing kick the can, talking long summer vacations in their wood paneled station wagon, and spending many weekends on their boat on Lake Travis. As a kid people called her Boo or Boo Hickey.
Watching her four older siblings go to college in Texas, Julie decided she’d “been there, done that” and chose to go to a small private women’s college, Mary Baldwin, in Virginia, with two of her best friends.
She spent her college summers exploring the world while being a camp counselor in Virginia, working at a pub in London and then traveling around Europe with her friend, Rush, and sister, Karen, and lifeguarding at a hot springs in Colorado while crashing with her sister, Karen,
Julie loved learning and couldn’t decide which classes to take so she took them all and finished college in three years with a double major. Julie spent her “senior” year traveling around the US visiting family, Spain, and Ecuador.
While in Ecuador, Julie and her sister, Lisa, (who was in the Peace Corps there) climbed Mt. Tungurahua, which is over 16,000 feet. They had not intended to climb the mountain but everyone else who went to the town of Banos was doing it so they thought they should too. It was both terrifying and amazing and their tour guide was shocked at how unprepared they were.
After college, like any good young adult, she moved back in with her parents in Austin to save on rent and took the first job offered to her at a small computer company called Dell Computer. She was young and carefree with no rent to pay or real bills to speak of. A year later, she went on vacation to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with her sister, Karen, to visit a college friend. While at a BBQ in Jackson Hole, she talked herself into a job at a local software company, UniLink, and moved soon after.
She ended up staying in Jackson Hole for eight years. Throughout her time there, she worked at two software companies, an e-commerce consulting company, traveled a lot with friends and family, skied, hiked, played softball (her team won the state championship and played in Nationals), drank too much as young people sometimes do, followed the Grateful Dead in her spare time, and had a fabulous time.
At the end of her time in Jackson Hole, she took a break from work and traveled for six months. This time to Hong Kong (where her parents were living) and Costa Rica.
She then decided to carve out a new life in California where her parents had just moved. A friend helped get her a job at Intuit in Silicon Valley (where she then promptly recruited another friend) and Julie worked there for fifteen years. She was able to witness Silicon Valley during the dot com boom (and bust). During this time she got her MBA in a joint program from UC Berkeley and Columbia University. She’d tell you she barely squeaked by some of the finance and accounting classes and needed extra tutoring from some amazing classmates.
She also met her wife, Lori Chelius, during this time while living in San Francisco. Lori lived on Noe Street and Julie lived on Valley Street so they were the consummate Noe Valley couple. Since Lori was from New Jersey and Julie was from Texas, both big hair states, they hit it off immediately (although neither had big hair at the time).
Lori shared her love for travel and learning new things and she now had someone to share her life and adventures with. They made a real commitment to each other when they got a golden lab named Noe, whom they spoiled rotten. They traveled extensively while holding down “real” jobs and/or in graduate school. At their wedding they told how they had traveled to 23 countries together and had just gotten back from a six month sabbatical of world travel.
They spent the next twelve years in Berkeley and Oakland and had three kids: Jackson, Lucy and Ellie. If Julie thought life was busy and exciting before kids, she learned that it was even more so with kids. She loved volunteering at their schools, watching them play sports or act in plays. Being a mom was both the hardest and best job she ever had and she loved it.
After working in Silicon Valley at in technology Intuit for fifteen years, Julie made the jump to educational publishing and took a job at Pearson (now Savvas) on the east coast to be closer to family. They spent 2 ½ years in DC (and they did love spending time with family on both sides) but decided they were “California girls” and moved back to California. Part of their hearts would alway be in the Bay Area but they decided on a slower pace of life in Davis.
Julie decided she needed to unleash her creative side without quitting her day job so she started working on “side hustles” of writing blogs and a book a few hours a week on nights and weekends. She found a burst of energy by exploring her creative side with her side hustles.
Julie was able to get back to the mountains when they bought a vacation place in Truckee, California and the family (which sadly they had lost Noe but now included their golden retriever, Oliver, and two tabby cat siblings, Fred and George) made so many great memories skiing at the many Tahoe resorts, hiking in the mountains, swimming and paddle boarding in Lake Donner and Lake Tahoe, etc.
Julie’s life was defined by family, friends, travel, trying new things and laughing as often as possible. She lived by the motto that her college president, Cynthia Tyson, often said, “We work hard and we play hard”. Julie worked hard and played hard and had a great life. If you knew Julie, I’m sure she learned something from you, laughed with you and her life was better because she knew you.