My DIY Obit
By Scott Howson
When I retired several years ago, I looked forward to having more time to do some of the fun things that before had to be squeezed in between all the things I did to earn a living. Retired, I could spend the occasional afternoon fly fishing in the Rappahannock, maybe finally get around to building the boat I’d sketched out years ago. Sandy and I could take some trips together, and I could get away by myself for hiking in the mountains or biking the many nice trails within a few hours’ drive from here. I could finally fix the fence our apple tree took down when it fell. Build some furniture.
It turns out I’ve done a lot of that, and some I wasn’t expecting. I started collecting musical instruments and set up a recording studio in the guest room. I got back to finishing a book I’d started in the 1970s and learned book binding. Polished my wood carving skills. And I started writing my obituary.
That may sound morbid, but it’s been a positive experience. When my 92-year-old mother died several years ago, my siblings and I found a box of random obits she had collected throughout her adult life. We stopped cleaning Mom’s apartment to glance through the box, and one by one each of my siblings admitted that they read the obits every day just to see what sort of interesting people we share this Earth with. I do, too, looking to see if anyone I know, or a relative of anyone I know, has died. I’ll reluctantly admit to being disappointed if I don’t see any names I recognize, but it’s nice to be able to say, “I’m sorry to hear your uncle passed on” when I see a friend or neighbor in the grocery. Being introverted, I’m grateful for any sort of ready-made comment, even condolences.
In looking through the daily obits, I’ve noticed that a lot of them describe the poor deceased soul in simple terms: “She was a Muskrats fan who collected antique Tibetan lace.” Or, “He will be missed by his two fur-babies, Fluffy and Butch.” Is that all there was to these folks? I doubt it. Too many obituaries are rote listings of the departed’s relatives, those who have previously died and those who remain to grieve. I don’t mean to disparage the efforts of the people tasked, unexpectedly and obviously under deadline, with compiling these two or three paragraph biographies. It’s just that in my opinion these obits don’t do a life justice, and I want more for mine. Besides, I don’t want my kids, in their moment of sadness, to have to scramble to remember what sports team I rooted for, or if I ever had any pets.
My life isn’t finished yet, as far as I know, but so far I’ve lived a full one and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to share my own thoughts on it. I want people who read my obituary to wish they’d gotten to know me better. Yes, I know how sad that sounds. But mostly, and I’ve given it a lot of thought, I want to make a statement about what I believe life is all about.
Writing your own obituary forces you to face life’s two greatest challenges: your inevitable mortality, and the ultimate value of the life you’ve led. It might seem that facing such personal realities should be daunting, but I tend, as I do with most things, to simply accept reality and move on. We’re all going to die someday, so there’s no need to belabor that point; and as for my life, it’s been what it’s been, and at this point I can only hope I’ll be remembered fondly for having made an effort.
I’m not a religious person, nothing against those who are, but I’m more interested in understanding the here and now rather than wondering what may or may not be out there beyond our understanding. If I were forced to describe what I have come to believe is this afterlife we go to when we die, I would have to say that “Going to heaven” is simply one way of saying that we live on in the memories of the people left behind. If we live generous, considerate lives, the kind of lives Jesus wanted us to live, then we’ll earn a valued place in their memories. Frankly, I can’t imagine a more welcome fate. Hell, of course, would be going down in everyone’s memory as a true ass.
As you’d expect, I’ve also given a lot of thought to life in general while considering what to include in my obit. While to some extent I am the creation of my experiences, it’s equally true that to some extent my life experiences were at least influenced by the person I am. If we can accept that life is what happens to each of us during the random span of time between birth and death, then what is it that any of us can say in the end that truly describes the fullness of that life? Still, and I think this is important, it does seem worthwhile to at least try to write down some personal observation on the nature of living, if only to say, “This obituary offers what I believe to be a reasonable overview of a life I am pleased to have led.”
Which is why over the years, while adding to and editing my obit, I’ve spent a good bit of time mulling over the purpose of living, the importance of what we do with our lives, the why-are-we-here questions, with a hope to identifying exactly what is important in a person’s life. The best I’ve come up with is this short list of things that might seem obvious, except that we tend to forget them from time to time.
First, enjoy yourself. You’re here for only a little while.
Second, be helpful. It’s better for everyone. Including you.
Third, recognize your place in the natural world.
Last, leave behind something of benefit to others.
I would imagine everyone wants to enjoy themselves and be helpful; everyone has some idea of where they fit in the grand natural scheme of things; and everyone, I think, would like to be well remembered. Whoever and wherever we are, as we go through our day-to-day existence we each get to decide what is important to us. We all get to decide which opportunities to embrace and which to avoid. That’s what makes us individuals, and finding our individuality is, I believe, fundamental to our being. Only when we look back, do those individual decisions become a story.
I think I’ve had more than my share of opportunities to do a lot of interesting things, but that may be for no other reason than I’m driven to seek out experiences rather than accomplishments. I’ll try anything just to see what happens, and frankly I don’t worry so much how it turns out. It took me a long time to learn that about myself. For example, I joined the Navy when I was 17, during Vietnam. I built a sailboat. I played piano in a gospel band. I’ve jumped out of an airplane, twice. I piloted a single-engine Cessna out of the Charlottesville Airport. I piloted a 55 ft. Crew Boat in the Gulf of Mexico. I ran a ballpark concession stand. Drove an interstate delivery truck for a while. I served on the boards that founded the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Hope House, the city’s first homeless shelter. I was the city’s vice-mayor, and as chairman of the regional planning commission I led the surrounding local governments in creating a $2 billion transportation plan, which was eventually approved by the federal government and ignored by VDoT. I’ve recorded five CDs of original music. I’ve written five books, and hand-bound one copy of each just for myself. I built most of the furniture in our house. I was arrested by the FBI for draft evasion, despite having received an honorary discharge from the U.S. Navy, and jailed. I narrated several documentary films for the National Park Service and was a travel writer for the Free Lance-Star. I was a frequent guest lecturer at Mary Washington College. I’m likely the only person in history to dip my hand in every one of the 98 named rivers and tributaries that flow into the Chesapeake Bay, or who would have wanted to. I bicycled the 182-mile C&O Canal Trail. I was the editorial cartoonist for my college newspaper. I held my high school’s record for the high jump. I’m a husband, brother, cousin, father, and grandfather. I’ve not seen the Alps, yet.
But while that listing of experiences vaguely describes my life, it doesn’t define it. Everyone has a list in their heads of the things they’ve done and the things they’ve accomplished, and each list is very personal. To some people, I suppose, seeing Dale Earnhardt win the 1998 Daytona 500 was an important event; to some it may have been kissing the Blarney Stone or seeing the Pope in Rome. One thing I’ve learned from scanning daily obituaries is that the world is made of all sorts of people, and it’s hard to fully define a person in a few words. We’re all more complex than that.
And that’s wonderful. Each of us is, and rightfully should be, free to follow whatever path our interests lead us on, and each of us should have the right to claim uniqueness. One thing that can be said about life is that it belongs equally to each of us. In the end, we all can point to our lives as our own personal collection of things we cared about. Unfortunately, too many human beings have lived lives stymied by their conditions; but our experiences, whatever they may have been, belong to us, and should be seen through our eyes alone. I just hope I’m able to do a meaningful job of telling my own unique story while I’m still here to do it. You should, too.
So my obituary, like the life it will eventually describe, is a work in progress. I do enjoy looking back at my experiences, and in some indefinable way know that my keeping track of what I’m doing motivates me to make sure I’m doing something of value with my time here. I continue to enjoy myself. I’m lucky to be sharing my life with a compassionate, beautiful, and fun-loving woman. Doesn’t that sound so much better than, “He was survived by his wife of 47 years”? Survived? That sounds like it took some effort.
I still look for opportunities to be helpful. I get out into the mountains, woods, and waters as often as I can, and marvel at the beauty of wildlife, including trees and flowers, in their natural environment. And when I drive around town, I’m able to remember the part I played, which was mostly just sitting through meetings, in making our community a better place for so many who understandably don’t know I exist.
Working on my own obituary has given me the opportunity to see my life as a story, and to understand myself better. I’d recommend it to anyone. I hope that my story sets a good example for my grandkids, but that they find their own way to becoming productive members of the community. And I hope whatever measure of my memory and DNA they carry with them enriches them on their path.
To me, that sounds like heaven.
From Life and Death and Other Random Stuff, a work in progress. Scott Howson is a retired graphic artist and former vice mayor of Fredericksburg, VA, who now spends his time writing stories, recording music, building furniture, playing with his grand kids, and exploring the countryside with his best friend, Sandy.