Some Sonoma County residents learn to write their own obituaries
Retired real estate agent Carol Collins-Swasey of Santa Rosa, who perished in the Tubbs fire, was remembered by her half brothers as a magical presence, who would come and go from their lives and become “older, smarter, prettier each visit.”
In her paid funeral notice, the Sutter Hospice Thrift volunteer also left a lasting impression on readers of the Press Democrat, who were charmed to learn that she was a “strong individual with a wicked sense of irreverent humor.”
In addition to an attractive photo of her as a younger woman, the funeral notice included playful excerpts from the obituary that the deceased insisted on writing herself: “If you are reading this,” she wrote, “I am dead. And no, I did not look this good when I checked out.”
“She was definitely a memorable person,” said Eloise Van Tassel of Sebastopol. “I wish I would have known her.”
Tasteful but macabre humor - the literary equivalent of an Edward Gorey drawing - also was evident in the “Write Your Obituary” workshop Van Tassel took last year at The Sitting Room in Penngrove.
The annual class is taught by writer Marie Thomas McNaughton, who has been archiving interesting women's obituaries for the privately funded community library since 2007.
Those drawn to the offbeat writing class learn to commemorate the dead in a lively - as well as a lasting - fashion in a way intentionally created to take personal charge of the moment and cast off dour and sometimes sanctimonious social traditions.
“There was a lot of laughter among those of us who were there,” Van Tassel recalled, noting that creative obituaries are part of the growing trend of a more open attitude toward death.
“All of us are getting older, and the taboo about death - shelving it and saying we'll think about it next year - that's leaving for a lot of people, and they're thinking about it as a realistic thing.”
Make every word count
This year's workshop, held on Oct. 27 to coincide with the whimsical Dia de los Muertos holiday in early November, offered lots of helpful writing advice to non-authors as well as practical tips on how to celebrate a life - your own or someone else's - in a unique but succinct manner.
Unlike a news obituary, which is typically written about prominent people by professional journalists, the DIY funeral notice is usually penned by a family member or friend, and often comes with a price tag, which can be fairly steep.
“You have to think about it as if it was a haiku,” McNaughton said. “You have to make every character count. You're paying for all that, and all the spaces too.”
McNaughton pointed out that the process of writing a funeral notice can help a family prepare for other bereavement experiences, such as getting interviewed for an obituary.
You need to know the same information for both: full name of deceased, date and place of death and birth, names of relatives, education, occupation, memberships in churches and other organizations, time and place of the funeral or memorial service, details of the burial, and a recipient for memorial gifts.
Summing up a life
The exercise of summing up one's life, McNaughton said, is a good way for people to start thinking about their own inevitable demise, and the way they want it to play out - what colors will be worn at your funeral, what kind of music do you want played, what poems or scriptures do you want spoken.?
“We are allowing ourselves to think differently about death and dying,” she said.
“Some people have celebrations of life before they die ... We don't have to fight to the last inch. We can embrace a kind of mindful dying.”
The class also embraces a more mindful approach by avoiding hackneyed expressions such as “a long battle with cancer” and instead, celebrating that person with their quirks as well as their accomplishments.
“I try to bring in as much humor as possible,” McNaugton said.
“This year I picked up a wine, Dearly Beloved's Forever Red, which has a sugar skull on the label.”
Some folks come just for fun while others are looking for practical guidance. Van Tassel said she wanted to pick up some tips for writing an obit for herself, having already gone through the process when her husband died 18 years ago.