How Writing Your Obituary Can Help You NOW

“Talking about sex doesn’t make you pregnant, and talking about death doesn’t make you dead.” 

So said a funeral director to James R. Hagerty, the only full-time obituary writer for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of a new book, Yours Truly: An Obituary’s Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story

Morbid, not in the least. Hagerty’s motto is: “If obituaries can’t be fun, what’s the point of dying?” And his book, packed with some of the more delightful and funny obituaries, is a tribute to the human condition. As a reporter and best-selling author, Bob Greene wrote in a book jacket endorsement, “No one understands the treasures to be found in life stories better than James. R. Hagerty.”

Hagerty’s forte is writing about people most of us do not know. He brings their stories to life in a way that is engaging, sometimes humorous, and always interesting. And therein lies the reason we should think about our end, that is, how we wish to be remembered.

Hagerty imbues his obituaries with more than a chronology of achievements or underachievements. Instead, he embellishes them with anecdotes that bring out the humanity of the person now deceased.

Stories matter

When I asked Hagerty in a recent interview what he says to people who do not think much of their life story, he said, “Think harder.” In business, this can be essential. “It’s important for business leaders to have stories because I think that’s a way to instantly connect with people, and they are looking for some kind of a life story when they meet you.” Connection is essential to fostering understanding and establishing trust.

When you create your story – or obituary — “You are giving your family and friends a gift, and it’s a gift that only you can give. And if you don’t give it, it’s just gone. Cause we can’t retrieve it after you’re gone.”

Three questions

Yours Truly offers a step-by-step guide to how to craft one. But, in addition, it lays out a blueprint for something more – how to craft the story of the life you want to lead now before your final reckoning. So borrowing that theme, here are some suggestions – converted to present tense.

What are you trying to achieve with your life? Get perspective on where you are now.

Why is this important to you? First, ask if what you are doing is aligned with your purpose and gives you the fulfillment you seek.

And how are things working out now? It is always good to take stock. It is always possible to make improvements.

These three questions – what, why, and how — illuminate where you are now. Consider them coaching questions that you can ask yourself regularly. Answers to them will tell you if you are doing what you want to do or need to adjust course.

Laugh, too

Humor is essential to obituaries, as it is in life. “If you go to a funeral, you know, there are eulogies, and the best moments in those eulogies are when some friend, friend or family member remembers some of the quirks or odd things about the deceased. And that makes everybody laugh.” Hagerty adds that such stories keep us in touch with the memory of the deceased. “I think that’s reassuring and comforting.”

Life is meant to be lived. Assuming the position of looking backward, if only momentarily, casts a light on how you want to be remembered and by whom. 

An obituary is an affirmation of life, yours. So make it memorable.

Note: Click here to see the LinkedIn Live full interview with James R. Hagerty.

First posted on 2.21.2023