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Inside the Brown Bag By Peg Brown

The Final Word

Who do you want to have that final word? Who is going to have the task of trying to summarize your life for all to read and hear? According to the Funeral Service Association an obituary should be the final word on our life and accomplishments. Do you really want to leave it to Cousin Hal whom the family has determined writes and speaks most eloquently? Cousin Hal—who shows up at Thanksgiving and Christmas?

It’s not that Hal wouldn’t get assistance with the task. All funeral directors have templates, as evidenced by the number of times the dying have been “surrounded by their loving family,” and “happily married for X number of years.” There are also numerous web sites and “funeral consultants” (read, event planners) who will help you not only write a piece for publication, but will also assist you with coordinating any special effects or events you might want to organize for the occasion. For example, web sites such as RemembranceProcess.com (2019) suggests that obituaries included the following components (in order): biographical sketch, family, service times, and special messages— contributions can be made in lieu of flowers to___; where to submit on-line condolences, perhaps a family thanks to caretakers, or—if you’re feeling brave, perhaps an apology to someone.

However, I have observed (I read the obituaries every day—an old habit from my decades as a fundraiser—those in the same profession reluctantly will admit that they do too!) that there is a certain “sameness” present in most of those “last words”—fueled, no doubt, by unexpected loss, grief or our tendency to remember, and publicly acknowledge, only the “good stuff” about our family member.

Those who know me well will testify that I have always been a bit outspoken and probably even irritating at times. With only one daughter (whom I hope will be devastated at my loss and therefore not relate any damaging stories of who I really was), I have decided to follow the new trend, and think seriously about penning those last words myself. Several years of challenging health issues are reason enough to hesitate no longer.

You may be surprised, as I was, that this is not a new or novel idea. Again, there are useful guidelines available that will assist even the most reluctant in undertaking this task. A particularly useful article is entitled, “It’s Your Story—Maybe it Should be Told Your Way.” (J. Campbell, 2016) Her suggestions include choosing your style (humorous, educational….); adding substance (activities, relationships, accomplishments…); and ending with what she calls “finishing touches”—maybe one or two of your missteps or regrets.

My own experience in this area is limited. The only two obituaries and eulogies I have written have been for my parents. As I reread those today, I will admit they are over-long, too detailed, often humorous and downright sappy sentimental. However, I will really never know if I captured what they thought, what was most precious to them, and how they would have highlighted the important or transforming incidents in their lives. Did I really know them beyond what I saw? What did others know about my parents and the choices and challenges they had faced?

All of this is prelude to the suggestion that the individual who should have the final word(s) is you. You should record the final chapter of your life—and if the word “beloved” never appears, that’s okay. Let me share how several others have approached writing their own obituary.

Val Patterson, California, organized his obituary around “joyful, exciting and stupid things, and miscellaneous stuff.”

Kevin McGroarty, West Pittston, took the humorous approach: “I leave behind no children that I know of, but if I did their names would have been Almighty Thor and Butter Cup.”

Jim Stuart, Minnesota, used the opportunity to make public confessions: “I really am not a PhD, and I did steal that candy bar when I was 5.”

Robert Bonadoona, Black Mountain, NC: “I was lucky to be born with brains, some talent, and ‘Lady Luck.’ And, I have been lucky, at least until the cremation.”

Amy C. Adams, Pocatello, ID: “I didn’t get everything accomplished that I want to so I left it for the kids—the garden, the weeds, the leaky faucets and all my possessions I did not need at all.”

Jane Catherine Lotter, Seattle, WA: “Joyful about having a full life—not sad about having to die.”

Susan Diane Buttram, Corpus Christi, TX: On why she was a feminist. “In 6th grade I decided I wanted to be an FBI agent and I wrote to the agency asking what I needed to study. The reply thanked me for my interest, told me that only men could be agents, and they would be happy to have me apply to be a secretary, clerk or lab assistant.”

Geoffrey L. Turner, Albany, NY: “I was an idiot who made the same stupid decisions and even though I knew it may eventually kill me, I chose to deny the “satisfaction” that really did nothing more than destroy my body.”

And finally, and most poignantly, there is the obituary written by Garret Michael Matthias of Van Meter, Iowa, AKA The Great Garret Underpants, who was only five at the time he answered these questions: (I selected a few for brevity).

My address is: “I am a Bulldog.”

Favorite people: “The grandparents with the new house.”

Things I hate: “Pants! Dirty stupid cancer!

Big or small funeral: “I want five bouncy houses, Batman and snow cones. I’m young you know.”

His parents published this last interview and honored his wishes.

I am a procrastinator of the first order, and I will probably continue to put off actually trying to write my final words. In many ways, these stories that you’ve let me share with you reveal more about me than any list of my degrees, positions, charitable works, and survivors. I also am far too wordy to limit myself to 1200 words or so. If my daughter decides to write something, I’ve instructed her to simply say: “Mom hoped that it mattered that she lived.”

Maybe you should take the time to pen some “final words.” You never know how they might inspire or help others with similar stories about the honest way in which we all have navigated this journey.

Author’s note: Okay, I am not being EXACTLY truthful here about not having the final word—control person that I am. I actually have a box in the closet labelled “photos for obituary video” documenting some of the more outrageous times in my life! And if I really have advance notice that “this is it,” I may decide to produce and narrate that video myself