Friday, January 22, 2016

Write Your Own Obituary

Last summer I was asked by the Boise Public Library to teach a "write your own obituary" workshop for their November Death in the Library series. As you may or may not know, I have some unique qualifications that make me the ideal person for such a job. 1) I used to work with dead bodies at a funeral home in Oregon 2) I went on to study the history of American death culture in graduate school AND wrote my thesis on the architecture of the American funeral home 3) I was hired by Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis to give art historical walking tours and I continue to give walking tours around Boise cemeteries and 4) I'm a writer.

But most importantly, not on this list, I'm a human and I'm a mother, two things that have made me even more aware of my own mortality.

A week or so ago one of my favorite authors, Cheryl Strayed, wrote this status update on her Facebook page, inquiring about the thoughts about death from all her fans:

At what point did you start seriously contemplating your own mortality? I mean in a real way. At what point in your life--if you have indeed reached this point in your life (some of you likely have not and some perhaps will never reach it) did the actual, vivid understanding that you and anyone you love may very well die today? I walked around in a cloud of never-imagining until my mom died. And then--every single day since then, since I was in a kid in COLLEGE--I've had the ...active, present thought that I or someone I love might die today. Today. It's not a neurotic fear thing. It's not a horrible monster that rules my life. I don't make decisions based on this feeling. It's simply an awareness of a presence and that presence is the stone cold fact of our mortality. Is it weird to have this daily awareness or do you also have this daily awareness? Is this awareness unique to people who were close to people who died young? (It would in some ways seems so.) Do you have this feeling even if you've not lost someone young? If you're a parent, did this feeling come/increase when you became a parent? Does this post feel utterly foreign to you because you hardly think of your own (or anyone's) mortality at all and you think I'm a mad hatter? I'm curious. I've always wondered.

For me, becoming a mother has made me so aware of this tenuous line between life and death that we all walk daily. Like Cheryl, I don't obsess over it (usually....unless I hear sirens within the 10 minutes my husband has left our house to bike to work or my kids have left our house to walk to school two blocks away because I am a bit neurotic and anxiety-ridden and please say YOU DO THIS TOO RIGHT), but it's something I'm constantly aware of.

I have had two miscarriages in the past three years and I've written about them before, often during October, which is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Making and growing babies is a miracle, as all mothers can attest to. Things can go so wrong in such an instant and in so many ways, that we are the luckiest - those of us with children who are down the street at elementary schools and sleeping in cribs in the other room. Honestly, birthing my dead babies into a toilet felt more like giant chunks of my heart just fell out of my body and, maybe, to the rest of the world I could just flush it away but to me, it clings and swells and informs every moment of my life since. I imagine that's the case with all deaths of those close to us, and although people experience grief in such diverse ways, it likely informs every moment of life after.

My writing workshops in November were amazing and the most thought-provoking conversations came up, about how obituaries tell specific stories of our lives, depending on who writes them. If they are funny, is that trivializing the intense pain of losing someone and downplaying the ritual? If we gloss over the hard or negative parts of the deceased's life is that preserving a false memory? When a person is gone, do we care where they went to college or worked or do we want to read more about how they grew the most beautiful roses in town and changed minds with their activism?

I set a goal for myself to write my own obituary as practice before the end of 2015, but I was too busy living and enjoying life to sit down with pen and paper and take on such a serious task. But also? It felt so solemn and scary to write my own obituary at the age of 40. And then I started thinking that, as a writer and a blogger, I have put so many words out into the world at this point, and that those words - THESE WORDS - are a true testament to my life story. I am, in effect, writing my own obituary on the reg.

At the age of 25 I became the only female mortician's assistant to pick up dead bodies at night for a small funeral home in Corvallis, Oregon. It was as weird and dark as it sounds. In fact, it may be even weirder and darker than you could ever imagine. I recently told some of these sad and heartbreaking, gruesome and hilarious tales as a celebrity storyteller for Starry Story Night for the theme 'departure' here in Boise - a fun public storytelling event at the Boise Contemporary Theater. So, instead of writing my body removal tales, I'll let you listen, because sometimes actions speak louder than words and sometimes it's better expressed in spoken word.

And sometimes it's all of these things and moments and living so much life while always on the verge of death that makes us beautifully human. So whether or not you put fingers to a screen and write or stand in front of an audience and talk or hug your kids or run up mountain trails or knit fingerless gloves or bake cakes or fix cars, we are all writing our own obituaries.

Make yours one worth reading.

** It's about 15 minutes long and you might not want to 1) have your kids in the room and 2) be eating your lunch - just fair warning. You may also want to have a tissue handy, because the audience cried, and so did I.


1 comment:

  1. I took Amy's obituary writing class last fall and was impressed at the scholarly way she approached the topic. As we age (and I'm a first-year Boomer, so I know whereof I speak), it's healthy for us to contemplate our leaving, and writing our own obit helps us be concrete about not only what we HAVE done, but what we still want to do. It's like any writer knows: You get more done, more efficiently, when you have a deadline. And this is our ultimate DEADline. So do it! There's literally no time like the present.

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