Actor James Rebhorn is the highest-profile example. But people are having the final say to ensure accuracy or humor.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 31, 2014 BY Justin Rocket Silverman
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Many obituaries were written about “Homeland” actor James Rebhorn, who died March 21, but one poignant obit really stood out: the one he wrote himself.
Such “autobituaries” make sure the final words on one’s life are not only accurate, but also expresses the thanks and thoughts we’d like to leave behind, as Rebhorn did in “His Life, According to Jim,” published on the website of his Jersey City church.
They can also be hilarious.
“Walter George Bruhl Jr. of Newark and Dewey Beach Del. is a dead person, he is no more, he is bereft of life, he is deceased, he has wrung down the curtain and gone to join the choir invisible,” wrote Bruhl, who passed away this year. “There will be no viewing since his wife refuses to honor his request to have him standing in the corner of the room with a glass of Jack Daniel’s in his hand so he would appear natural to visitors.”
Bruhl’s grandson posted the autobituary on Reddit – and it has entertained tens of thousands of people across the world.
The website legacy.com, which tracks and compiles obituaries, has a special section dedicated to selfies – and there’s been a marked increase in autobituary submissions in recent years.
“For some people, writing their own obituary is an important part of coming to terms with the fact that their lives are coming to an end,” says company spokeswoman Hayes Ferguson. “For others, it’s a way to make sure they are remembered the way they want to be remembered.”
Reading the autobits on legacy.com is like meeting great and witty people from across the country — before they shuffled off the mortal coil. There’s Alexander Wolny, a California man who triumphed over cerebral palsy. There’s Velma Taylor, the Texas woman whose parents were sharecroppers and who went on to have eight children of her own.
If you’re reading this I’m dead…
Then there is Val Patterson, who uses his own obit to get some things off his chest.
“As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971,” Patterson wrote. “To Disneyland – you can now throw away that ‘Banned for Life’ file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore…”
Another website called myobit.com hasn’t been launched yet, but the site’s owner, Derick Burgher, says he hopes to one day create a “Facebook for the dead, with people writing their own life stories while they’re alive and sharing the links with friends and families.”
Indeed, Facebook and other social media platforms have inspired much of the increase in autobituary writing, giving anyone a chance to reach a broad audience with his or her final words.
Jade Walker edits blogofdeath.com, a compendium of obituaries, and has her own autobituary ready to publish online upon her death. In addition to making sure she has the final online say about herself, Walker sees other benefits to writing her own obit.
“Knowing it will be the last word on my life has inspired me to live more fully, and in the moment,” she says. “When my time finally comes, I hope I’ve lived an obit-worthy life.”
Rebhorn’s self-written obituary is already encouraging other members of his church to write their own, says St. Paul Lutheran Church officer Christopher Greene.
“He’s the first one of our church to do it and it was a stroke of brilliance,” says Greene. “If there are doubts about whether someone loved you, you’ve got a written statement saying they did very much.”
Of course, autobits are as old as the first suicide note, something humans have been penning for thousands of years — though as author Marc Etkind discovered while writing the book “…Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes,” the great majority of people who commit suicide don’t leave any note.
“There is this instinct to try to leave a message after death,” says Etkind. “But the suicidal mind can’t convey thoughts with the eloquence or clarity the way a non-suicidal mind can. If you could write a coherent suicide note, you wouldn’t commit suicide.”
For those looking for a little guidance in writing an obituary before they begin pushing up daisies, websites like obituaryguide.com and obitkit.com give the process some structure.
But an autobituary need not fit any kind of predetermined format. Ronni Bennett, 72, lived in Greenwich Village for 40 years, and has been blogging every day for the last 10 years at timegoesby.net. She has a “last blog post” all written and ready to go, with instructions on how to publish it after her death. She believes this last post is vital for letting the people in her life, both online and those she has met in person, know how much they meant to her. Anyone who doesn’t leave a last blog post or autobituary behind is doing a disservice to their community, she believes.
“It starts with, ‘If you’re reading this I’m dead,'” Bennett says. “Everyone should write one. Especially if they are a blogger.”
How to write your autobituary
Here are five tips for writing your own obituary from obituaryguide.com founder David McConkey.
- Just get started. No matter how incomplete, it will be benefit others after your death.
- Get your facts straight; then go beyond them. Say what your life means to you, which may be hard for others to describe if you don’t.
- Use this project as an opportunity. Writing your own obituary could expand into a longer memoir, as well as become a reminder to write your will and make arrangements for your funeral.
- Leave your composition (along with a photo) where it can be readily found when needed.
- Plan for an exceptional obituary. Live an interesting and meaningful life.