Confessions of an Obituary Writer

I love writing. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, blog posts—anything, really. I compose unnecessarily long emails. Even my text messages are wordy. I can’t help it. I love writing.

But my skill set sometimes feels frivolous, a bit impractical, when it comes to helping other people, my friends, in particular.

I’m fortunate that I found a group of women who have walked beside me while I raised my four children, women who are strong and loyal and smart and fun. Together, we are fighters, protesters, advocates, parents. But individually, we are very different from each other.

In most friend groups, someone emerges as the Organizer, the one who plans the get-togethers and dinners out. In my circle of friends, the Organizer is also the thoughtful one with an unlimited capacity to be there for her friends. She arranges meals when someone is sick and makes sure everyone’s needs are met.

In addition to the Organizer, there’s the Caregiver, who, without fail, quietly checks in if she hasn’t heard from someone for a while. She’s also a financial wizard and will join me at book readings, cake-baking contests, or art shows with little or no notice. We have so much fun together.

There’s the Advocate who honestly shares in all of our good news – and bad news – as passionately as she would her own. She’s a personal trainer and never fails to motivate me and lift my spirits with her generous smile and enormous hugs.

There’s the Physician who has made house calls for all our children, most recently treating (and extracting pus from) my child’s infection when I was out of the country. She texts me relentlessly to make sure I’m using my inhaler when she knows my asthma is acting up.

And there’s the Dancer, who moved away years ago, but never really left. Originally from Venezuela, she patiently lets me practice my terrible Spanish and never forgets a birthday. A former professional ballerina, she moves through life with grace. She has the tenderest of hearts and the best dance moves. I miss her so much, but when we get together a couple of times each year, it’s like she never left.

But who am I in this circle of amazing women?

I’m a fiction writer and a journalist, not a skill set as helpful as being a physician or the world’s most organized person.

In my group of friends, I think I am the Storyteller, which, as we grow older, means I have become the obituary writer. It is an honor when someone entrusts you with crafting words that will memorialize a loved one. They are delicate words, written and read in raw, vulnerable moments.

As I write an obituary, I am very aware that I will make people cry. But maybe they will laugh or smile, too. These words will likely be clipped from the newspaper and saved until the paper turns brittle and yellow. They will be tucked into the pages of sacred texts and scanned into computers.

Earlier this year, I wrote the obituary for a very dear friend, the husband of the Caregiver. He was one of the kindest, most sincere humans I have ever known. His life was enormous, full of people and love. In the days after he passed, I sat in his house with his wife, sons, and extended family. The Friend Group took over. The meals were taken care of, the arrangements handled with efficiency. As people buzzed around the house, I sat at the kitchen table with my friend’s son and wrote those words that no son wants to write about his father, who was only 56. We wrote his obituary.

I’ve written humorous blogs and short stories that I’m terribly embarrassed about now. I’ve written award-winning investigative news articles, and I recently completed my first novel. But these words, my friend’s obituary, nearly broke me.

His was not the first obituary I have written, not by a long shot. As part of my first newspaper job, I spent every Sunday for two years writing obituaries. It was just my job. It felt tedious. I knew the phone numbers, addresses, and idiosyncrasies of all the local funeral homes and houses of worship.

At the time, I don’t think I considered the life my words would take on. All of those hundreds of obituaries I wrote probably still exist, clipped in scrapbooks. They have been read over and over and passed on to loved ones. I did not give them the emotional energy they deserved. Mortality was still abstract in my twenty-something world. I know I could have done a better job if I had taken the time to think about each person as a human being.

As I sat at the kitchen table writing my friend’s obituary, I thought of all of those nameless people I had memorialized. How could I possibly capture my friend’s life in ten or fifteen column inches of newsprint? He was special. A dedicated father, husband, and friend. A community leader, scoutmaster, coach, and avid outdoorsman. He was my son’s godfather. He had a spectacular Texas drawl and the best smile.

There were not enough words. There could never be enough words, but I did my best.

More recently the Physician asked if I would write her mother’s obituary. I had never met her mother, but I know how much my friend loved her. I wish I could have met this stylish woman with a collection of funky clogs and a gift for photography. I asked a lot of questions, and surprisingly, as I wrote her story, I felt like I got to know her a little bit.

My life experiences often bleed into my writing. They shape the people who populate my stories. Writing helps me work out my feelings, anxieties, and fears. I’m going to try a new writing exercise. I plan to write an obituary for the main characters in my new novel. I want to explore what the other characters would say about them. What mattered most to them? What would they be remembered for?

As I write obituaries—even fictional ones—it’s hard not to wonder what someone would write about me. With limited space, what adjectives would they choose? What qualities about me are meaningful and memorable? I hope for the things most of us probably hope for. To be remembered as a good parent, partner, and friend. Maybe as a decent writer. Did I make a difference? Was I kind? Did I matter?

In my Friend Group, I suspect I’m the quirky one. I can tell a good story and make my friends laugh. I’m incredibly good at crying, and I make excellent soup.

I’m also the obituary writer. And it is a profound honor I hope I can live up to.

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