You’ve just died — sorry for your own self-loss — but if you haven’t seen to details in advance of your expiration date, your nearest and dearest are scrimmaging to take care of everything left undone.
Who’s going to take your bozo of a cocker spaniel, who never entirely bought into the concept of elimination outdoors? Let’s say you were a hoarder, and now your heirs need to call in a fleet of dumpsters. Did you wish to be cremated and have your ashes scattered over Lucy Vincent, on a day chock-full of naked sunbathers?
The last item on your mourners’ list is going to be your obituary. Whoever knew you best will likely be allocated this chore: Where you were born, raised, met your childhood sweetheart, received your schooling, etc., etc. will all be noted, but will anyone, reading a cut-and-dried account of your life get to know, posthumously, the real you?
The you that threw the meanest snowball, even into old age? You, with the magical ability to pick winning horses by name, never mind jockeys and vital stats? Oh sure, you might have been dean at a classy little college in the Amherst hills, but you’d rather people know you kayaked through Norway’s fjords, and ziplined above the rain forests of Laos.
Victoria Haeselbarth is the outreach worker at the Edgartown Council on Aging, colloquially known as the Anchors. Under the administration of Paul Mohair, the Anchors is a charming old house with a dining room facing the harbor and its attendant breezes. In this sublime setting, Ms. Haeselbarth has long run a four-week-course on the art of obit writing, specifically one’s own. (Sadly but also apropos, this past May the outreach worker lost her own mother, pianist, journalist, and Edgartown resident Diane Haeselbarth).
On a recent Saturday at the West Tisbury library, Ms. Haeselbarth presented a workshop condensed into a one-and-a-half-hour overview. At least 40 avid obit students showed up. Each was given a trim black folder into which one could pack pages of facts about oneself. On the cover, a label with a cartoon tombstone and a trio of ghosts underlies the words “The Obituary of: _____________ [your name goes here].”
It might sound ghoulish, but who among us could resist scribbling data about our quirkiest skills, such as playing the ukulele or rescuing lost parrots? Victoria supplies a sheet with key reasons for writing one’s own obit: “You can portray yourself as you want to be known rather than as someone else sees you.” And “your obit can become a punch list, or bucket list, for the things you would like to accomplish in your life.”
At our nation’s top newspapers, talented obituary writers are on hand to lend zip to the dry data of a person’s life. The practice of well-written obits received attention after the publication of Marilyn Johnson’s best-selling book, “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries,” in which she scavenged U.S. and U.K. obits (they’re nastier and funnier over there) for the most intriguing, goofy and/or uplifting.
Ms. Johnson explains, “The point of the obituary and the beauty of it, aside from its elegant structure and the wonderful writing it can inspire, lies in that heroic act. There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA.”
Ms. Haeselbarth covered an enormous amount of territory — four weeks of classes, remember — packed in that single morning, and had us writing in our exercise pages, laughing, and enjoying our teacher’s PowerPoint presentation. We left the not-so-macabre workshop, our black folders stuffed with guidelines, sample obits, and our own mini-essays to enable us to fill out that label — the one with the tombstone and ghosts — with our own name.
I’m going to speak for myself and, hopefully, everyone else in attendance, that we’ll take pleasure in writing our obits in this new trend of making them fun and personal. (When I told my son, a comedy writer, that this was one post-Mom chore he could dispense with, he assured me, “I’ll punch it up.”)
Watch for Ms. Haeselbarth’s next workshop at the Anchors (and you might want to check out the facility’s fabulous and almost egregiously inexpensive lunches) at edgartowncoa.com, or call 508-627-4368.