The Deadline of a Life Time.

I might as well live on the North Slope. Or Ultima Thule. Or Westeros. It’s cold here on Long Island and Yours Truly is not one bit pleased, not one little bit. Today is the sixth day in a row of rain:

You can’t see it, but those watery icicles on the edge of the table are dripping as if the cruel goddess of Crappy Springs is dumping an infinite ice bucket of Liquid Depression from on high. I’m not into this at all.

And it’s so cold that Steve is back to spending his days in his Winter nest half-way under the bush/all the way under the eaves by the front porch:

Here’s a close up because I know you want more of Steve-o:

I had to put my electric blankie back on the bed. I’ve had to don the dreaded Winter fleece once again. And I’ve been eyeing the vodka almost non-stop since 11 AM.

I would love to complain all day but we have a blog to do. So let us get to the topic of the day: Obituaries and How To Write Them and then we can declare it Happy Hour.

Let us start this without backstory (for now) so you can read this obit clean, like. Let’s pretend that you are opening your October 8, 2014 New York Times newspaper to the obits pages:


There’s only one photo in the paid portion of the obits, and it draws your attention immediately. You read:

Yes, that’s the obit I wrote (except for the bit “in acceptance of the inevitable” in the first first sentence and the entire last sentence, which were written by my sister Buffy, who also edited the obit for length). Rolly didn’t have children, so that’s why I was tasked with giving the last word about the family’s favorite relative.

As you can read, I did not use Rolly’s obit as an excuse for every related schmo’s to get their name in print. I object to having to read lists of names of survivors in an obit, particularly the grandchildren (the boring Caitlyns, Kaylas, Taylors, Tylers, Madisons etc), who should earn their place in the New York Times by dying, same as everyone else. I wrote this obit to be all about Rolly, not about is survivors.

Re-reading this for the first time in two and a half years I can spot some clunky writing that I would love to edit (adding one transition and cutting out two adjectives) but for the most part, I’m happy with it.

P.S. This obit cost about $5,000. The Times is not cheap.

Here is what I believe when it comes to writing obits:

1. I believe that obits should give a reader a lively biographical account of the dead person’s personality and values. The best way to make that kind information entertaining is by telling stories, which means putting the relevant bio details in context rather then merely listing dates and accomplishments.

Listing of dates and boring facts should be kept to a minimum — does the world really need to know the exact date of one’s college graduation? Or marriage? Really? (Sorry, Deborah, and all future genealogists; obit writing is an art and you can’t make art out of public records.) Too many dates allows down the pace and retards the fun factor of an obit, makes it too much like homework.

2. Avoid being predictable. In obituaries, everybody who gets out of the house is a “world traveler”. Everyone who ever laughed at their own jokes had “wit”. Every over-eater had “gourmet tastes”. Every Tom/Dick/Henrietta will be “sorely missed”. Anybody who had kids was “devoted to family”. Every kid that dies young had a “smile that lights up a room”.

3. Never list adjectives in lieu of real sentences — to quote an obit on the same page of the NYT as Rolly: “A woman of great warmth, optimism, humor, and beauty, [the dead lady] always saw the best in others and brightened up the lives of family and friends.” Having read that sentence, aren’t you left with the message that this lady didn’t make much of an individualistic impression on those around her? She is described only in relation to others, no mention of what she did to actualize her own self, who she was in her own right — we’ll never know.

3A. If you must list adjectives because the New York Time’s ain’t cheap and you’re on a budget, pick interesting ones. Pick adjectives that describe the dead person’s individuality, not their qualifications for sainthood.

P.S. Ever notice how women are never described as “smart”? Could it be because being smart doesn’t bear on her serviceableness to her family? No, they only care that she was warm, would laugh at your lame ass jokes, and was pretty. Families suck the life out of their women, don’t they?

4. Never, ever, use the word grace. Another quote from another obit: “An artist and teacher of exceptional talent, heart, generosity, and grace.” Let’s never mind the listing of adjectives — let’s figure out “grace”. It’s a word that sounds a lot as if it means something, but what does it mean??? Does it mean she had good manners? Does it mean that she lent people money happily? Could it mean that she kept a vase of flowers in her desk? Does it mean that she only cursed in French? Or could it mean that she could actually disappear into the astral plane and do housework for the less fortunate? We’ll never know because we don’t know what “grace” specifically pertains to, so it’s a word that doesn’t mean anything.


Now, about Rolly’s obit: I knew Rolly for 40+ years, and I knew what stories he re-told and those were the ones (and characters) he wold want included re: mom’s bacon sandwiches and his uncle the Atlantic City bookie. I also knew that walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at age 86  fulfilled a life-time dream of his, and in fact the photo we used the top of his obit (and it costs extra) was one I took of Rolly ON the Brooklyn Bridge:

Uncle Rolly with my brother Jimmy on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Old friends and business associates of Rolly’s called me up to say how much they really liked the obit I wrote, so I can happily say that the obit portrayed Rolly very much in the way that those who knew him longest and best knew him.  His ad agency, in its official press release of Rolly’s passing, used bits if this obit so, yeah, if you’re plagiarized you’re doing something right.

The one thing I left out was the fact that Rolly was a widower. Rolly truly loved his wife, Naomi, and maybe he would have wanted her mentioned but I didn’t put her in the obit because her two kids (Rolly’s step children who he helped raise and financially support well into adulthood) had, by unanimous family opinion, been real shits during the later years of Rolly’s life and I wanted to spite them, wipe them completely out of the record. And truthfully, Naomi was kind of bitchy. So, yeah, we survivors have the final word so if you don’t want that to happen, WRITE YOUR OWN OBIT!!

You know the most famous obituary story,don’t you? About the rich businessman who was mistakenly obitted (yeah, I made that up, and isn’t it brilliant???) and he, reading this premature obit, realized that he didn’t want to be remembered for having the world’s biggest dynamite factory so he funded philanthropic awards in his name and that’s how Alfred Nobel is now mostly known for his Prize. So maybe writing your own obit will reveal a life’s mission, or not. You never know.

My last belief about writing obits is that you shouldn’t do it on a rainy day (too dispiriting, and suicide notes never count) so I won’t be writing my Last Word today. Or tomorrow, from what I hear on the forecast, even though I am close to being bored to death with this crappy RAIN. (Note to self: Obit should mention She did not like rainy days.)

If you are going to Comment below — and I desperately hope you do — please include the one adjective that you’d most like to have in your obit.

I am sending out my biggest hopes to all you Dear Readers that, wherever you are this weekend, you are neither soggy nor shivering. I wish you the warmth of love and the comfort of soft blankies which I hope are made of warm breezes and starry rays of light. And most of all, I hope you feel especially alive.

19 Comments, RSS

  1. Carey

    Wonderful obituary for your dear uncle.

    My adjective is GUTSY. I want to be remembered for taking chances and trying new things, and for standing up for what I believe in. And you’re right that I better write this down before I shuffle off to Buffalo.

    I hope the sun comes out soon in your world. It sounds to me that you need it.

  2. Mary Clark

    Badass. At everything she did, but especially book-related things. She sold them, bought them, read them, and lent them for years as a middle school librarian and as a friend with a large personal library.

  3. Sylvie

    Smart and svelte. I know that’s 2 but I like the combo, and I like what you wrote about women not getting credit for their smarts. I also want credit for staying active and healthy and yes, I’m just the tiniest bit vain. I’m not beautiful but I did the best with what I had.

  4. Linda L.

    I’m going with Righteous. As in: Her friendship, her parties, and the effect of the lives of those she loved was righteous.

    Give Steve a big kiss for me, I love tuxedo kitties.

  5. Janet Lea

    You gave us a hard assignment. I can’t decide between choosing wise v. kind. My younger self would have opted for smart, but now that I am on the downhill side of the age bell curve, I would rather be recognized for being wise, meaning I don’t necessarily only know some of the answers but perhaps I have a better understanding of the most important questions too. There’s also a lot to be said for being remembered as being kind — to one’s self, to other people, animals, and the world itself. My grandmother is my role model for kindness — she lived to be 99 and not a single person can remember a single time they heard her say anything unkind about anyone. She wasn’t a patsy by any means: she was as strong as any woman I’ve ever known, a single mother rearing 4 girls during the Depression, a talented musician who loved music and played the piano every day until the week before she died, and a perfect example of how to survive and thrive. Maybe my adjective should be Sally-like.

  6. Becky

    It is cold and rainy here too. It is a great day to curl up with my dog and in between catching up on reading Mary Whytes book petting her. Which I think annoys her because she is trying to sleep. I’m blabby so one word isn’t going to cut it….I would say a lover of persistent wet dog kisses….even as I hear my dad in the background heaven reprimanding me…”don’t kiss that dog”…..
    the weather is yucky but we are so excited because our Pgh Pens have made it to the finals. Hockey fulfills the need to pummel a certain politician….you can always pretend his head is a puck!
    I missed commenting in the last post….I absolutely love that picture of Truman….talk about a contented soul. I can almost hear him doggie sigh.

    I loved the obit you wrote about your Uncle Rolly. It is the personal stories of our lives that make us who we are. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. This is a GREAT post! That obit is perfect. I love the idea of making the obit about the person who died, not all the hangers-on. And the creative way you eliminated mention of those who didn’t deserve it.

    My adjective? I ‘m shallow enough to think of choosing one that makes me seem better than I am (was!) like, kind, but there are plenty of days when I’m not kind, so no need to remind folks that I didn’t always meet the mark. This is silly, but lucky comes to mind . In spite of lots of crappy stuff along the way, I have great kids and grands, a husband who loves me, and enough money so I don’t need to worry if I can afford the avocado on my sandwich. Lucky – sounds good.

    Oh, and $5K for an obituary?? Yikes!

  8. And I thought our crappy little daily rag was high priced. I don’t even know what it costs anymore but I do know it isn’t $5,000!

    I love a good obituary that lets you know who the person really was and yours did the trick. I want to hang with your uncle Rolly in the next world. I think I’d like people to know I’m tough. No one thinks that, you know, which can be a tremendous advantage. Most folks would say all those yearbook words — nice or sweet or thoughtful. Yeah, sure. But it took being tough to get up and get going every day, even if I knew that somewhere along the dayspan there would be a meltdown. (That also fakes them out, but then, they were real meltdowns…) Tough or tenacious. Tenacious is probably a better word for the bucks! But tough implies a little more grit. Undefeated.

    Our weather stinks here and if I was writing my obit today I would refer to the crappy weather because it has plagued me for weeks. They’re threatening sun and maybe 70 this weekend. I’ll believe it when I take off my sweatshirt. I hope yours improves!

    Happy weekend — and hi-ho, Stevearino!

  9. Bev

    Oh, how I love your obituary of your dear uncle Rolly. And YES I remember that Costro Convertible jingle and can sing it even today, and what a small world it is that my favorite author is related to the man who “conquered space”. This brought back so many memories that I wish everyone could know, Castro Convertibles were big big big in New York back in the day.

    I also love reading what these brilliant ladies have made their one word obit. I want them all! I love Badass, I covet Sally-like, I wish I were SMART, I know Jenie is resilient, I wish I were svelte, I think that a person who thinks she is above all LUCKY is (as is Janet) wise and kind. Dear Readers, you are all that and more.

  10. Megan

    Rolly sounds great. Wonder why he didn’t walk across the bridge earlier? I totally agree with your views about family… I’ve been to funerals where the eulogy giver manages effortlessly to turn the limelight onto themselves, “daddy was proud of my achievements and I’ve had a few!” OMG. I also think that Buffy summed it up nicely, heavens you wouldn’t want to just list all decendents, would you? I love it really do and I have a eulogy to think about myself, this has helped give insight. I have to say you always make me laugh, you don’t pull punches. Thank heavens. When I was 19 at my second ever job, someone said to me, “you don’t suffer fools gladly”, I took it as a compliment. I am a bit of a terrier when I get going. Probably not a good thing. Love Steve’s nest, all he needs is a roof. Sorry to hear about the weather that is plaguing you, however here in Aus it’s dry. We had 11mm in April and 21mm in May. Only a couple of days until 1st June the official start of winter and it is still warm and sunny during the day, cools off to about 5C over night so the mornings and evening are crisp, however with an organic lap warmer I still haven’t had to heat the house. Thank you again Vivian for a wonderful start to the weekend. Cheers!

  11. Karen

    Hard to pick just one – I’m with Deb, I’ve been lucky with family, circumstance, and above all FRIENDS. I also am with Bev, as I think “tough” (persistent?? maybe “perseverant” is best).

    Steve is so cute.

  12. Kirra

    Sorry about all the rain! Like Megan said we haven’t had too much yet but today is very rainy in Adelaide, but since we’ve had a nice sunny week it’s a bit of novelty. Doesn’t take much rain for me to be fed up!

    I think your obit is great and agree stories are the way to go. It cost a bit but sounds like it was worth it for the people who read it.

    One word is tricky, everyone else has done a good job. I’m a chatterbox and am pretty cheerful but like to think of something a bit different so am going with ‘merry’. I like that it’s a bit of an older word not used that much now too…..

    Keep warm Steve and I hope you all get some sunshine soon!!!! (As I mentioned last week I’m actually visiting USA for the fist time in July and am hoping for sun.)

  13. Long time reader, first time commenter.
    I’m sorry, I just had to say it.
    I do love your blog (and your books) and I must say, that IS a beautifully written obituary. Rolly seems like someone who would have been fun to know, and that is an important thing to convey in an obit.
    I respectfully disagree with your stance regarding family names and the inclusion/exclusion of people in one’s life. Sometimes it is nice to children’s names, if for no other reason than to see what names have been in favor throughout the years, although grandkids’ names, nieces and nephews, etc., largely not necessary.
    Did Rolly love his wife? And his stepkids, even though they became shits? Then to leave them completely out is not factual, and it is not fair to Rolly. Sometimes it says more about your life that you have loved others, even when they disappoint you, than that others have loved you. It is challenging to love and care for and give, and to discount that ignores one of the greatest challenges in all our lives.

  14. Judy Jennings

    How do you get “always interested in other people’s lives” into one word?
    (Your obit was brilliant, Vivian.)

  15. Leslie

    Dear Vivian, My Mom died recently, and in the spirit of composing a eulogy/obituary for her, I was confronted by the overarching requirement of truth for the occasion. One hopes for noble, lofty sentiments, and warm memories. But, she was prickly and difficult, stubborn and selfish, as well as interesting, somewhat principled, and judgemental. Loving her was a challenge. I know that she was not unique in this regard. Those of us who knew her responded to her fine moments and generous gestures of kindness, enduring the rest. Reducing a person’s life to a finite number of words is daunting. As it says in the Tao, “That which can be named is not the nameless thing.” Peace, Leslie

  16. Love Rolly’s obit. Agree with everyone who said they wished they’d known him. Agree about refraining from describing women in terms that dehumanize…………

    The fact that something is true does not automatically render it relevant, meaningful, or helpful (wives, children, siblings, grandchildren, cousins, legions of friends in obits).

    (I am working on this in daily life — “Yes, it’s true, but does it improve the world if you say it right now?”)

    If I have to pick only one word for myself, I think I’m going with “curious.” I am curious about a wide variety of topics, and nothing makes me happier than learning something new and incorporating it into what I already know (or revising what I already know if the new item is compelling and likely to be true).

    (Not if the news is horrible, though. I still can’t believe we’ve got The Asshole instead of a president, and I can’t believe how easily he and his fellow scumbags are demolishing all of the progress toward Civilization that have been made in the last centuries and millenia…………..)

    Maybe I need to abandon “curious” for “truthful,” as in “She told the truth, even when truth was poorly received.”…………………………..

    — Vicki, who wishes fervently that it would rain, because then all of the #($*&% noisy polluting lawn primpers would be in the garage rather than out making noise Noise NOISE.

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