When I was growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, departed members of the community rated either a news obituary or a simple death notice in the Delta Democrat Times. If fortunate, the deceased might receive a further sendoff in the form of a much-coveted mention in Brodie Crump's "Old Stuff" column. Simple and tasteful. Everybody knew what to do.
Death, like everything else, is so much more complicated today, including and especially the important matter of one's obituary. The lengthy, paid obituary has replaced the courtesy obituary or very brief paid notice that small-town newspapers in the South, as I remember it, once routinely ran. One thing, however, hasn't changed: we Southerners always want to present ourselves well, dead or alive.
To this end, more and more people are writing their own obituaries. "I am motivated to write my obit because I don’t trust my children to get the facts straight and include all my teaching honors and [Colonial] Dames offices," says my friend Virginia Jenkins of Alexandria, Virginia.
Perhaps the first rule in writing your own obituary is to exercise restraint and self-control, omitting that which can trivialize. "My mother loved her pets more than anyone I ever knew," says Gayden Metcalfe, my coauthor of Being Dead in No Excuse, "but thank God she had enough sense not to put them in her obit...Tootsie, L.B. and Fat Cat were not in Mother's obituary."
Gayden is also a firm believe that the well-written obituary limits the number of spouses. " I am also annoyed to read an obit that mentions every husband and/or former wife of the deceased," Gayden says. "If they didn't like them enough to stay married to them, why call their names? I find it awkward and embarrassing."
John Pope, author of Getting Off at Elysian Fields: Obituaries from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, published last year and the Deep South's answer to the brilliant obit writers at the U.K. Telegraph, disagrees (but seconds Gayden on our four-legged friends!). I think my mother, a self-professed "pioneer of divorce in the Mississippi Delta," would have loved her husband-less obit. She would also have been delighted that, thanks to my uncle's deft hand, the casual reader might have been excused for believing she went onto All Saints Junior College, as opposed to dropping out of All Saints in the eleventh grade because she wanted more time to attend paw-ties.
It is only natural that we want readers to know that we will be missed. Saying that we "leave behind to mourn us" various people, however, is a cliche that convinces no one. Ditto scattering sappy "beloveds" through the text, which for me always calls to mind Jessica Mitford's macabre book on the funeral industry. John Pope is adamant that the cause of death be included but not sugar-coated, as in "courageous battle with cancer. "I'd just put cancer," says John. "Have you ever met anybody who waged a cowardly battle with cancer?"
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And while we are at it, I would like to mention my pet peeve: Passing away. I notice it creeping into the obits of people who should know better. Nice People Die! "It's like saying couch and drapes instead of sofa and curtains," says my friend Mimi Davis of New Orleans (who, coincidentally, had a fabulous obit in hand the very day I called: Loreto Richard O'Reilly, 93, who insisted upon good table manners yet cooked nothing edible—nice if you can pull it off).
As for me, you won't be reading my obit. I am too old-fashioned and too proud to pay for one. And that's not all. When I am dead, think only this of me: my DOB is none of your damned business.