Friday, April 21, 2023

Details of Life by Karen S. Wiesner

Details of Life

by Karen S. Wiesner

In this article, I talk about changing your perspective from the negative to the positive when writing an obituary for yourself or for a loved one who's still alive.

Last summer, after we'd all finally come through the COVID crisis worse for wear but still kicking, my family went through a heartrending trauma that (thankfully) was resolved over the course of just a couple days. Even still, once it was finally concluded, none of us could easily go back to our normal lives without feeling haunted for months afterward by it. If a situation that harrowing could actually lead to anything good, if nothing else, it did spur us to get our future financial, medical, legal, and end-of-life "ducks in a row". Those in my family who'd played a role in the event realized that the absolute worst time to focus on these crucial things was literally at the end of our lives.

Over the course of the next several months, my husband and I and our other close relatives filled out all kinds of forms that we'd never taken the time to realize, let alone understand, could be necessary sooner rather than later. These things were filed with the appropriate agencies and copies were given to everyone relevant. More than once we wondered, if we'd done these things sooner, would we have had to go through what we did at all? There is no good answer to such a question.

At the beginning of this year, our local library gave a program called "What To Do Before You Die". While we were fairly confident we'd adequately prepared for the future, we figured it couldn't hurt to make sure. We signed up and convinced some friends to join us. For this program, the library director had gathered an interesting pool of local resources: the County Register of Deeds, a local funeral director, a flag pole and monument business, the local cemetery caretaker, an estate planning lawyer, and the County Veteran Service officer.

Although we'd planned and prepared well, we discovered over the course of the several hours this seminar took place that there were a few considerations we'd missed, allowing us to become even more organized for the future. To cap the highly useful agenda, there were several knowledgeable souls on hand to talk about obituary writing. Those leading the discussion advised writing your own "death details" in advance to make the process much easier for those this task would otherwise fall to once you were gone. I was actually the one who raised my hand during this and suggested not only doing this for yourself but for elderly relatives who were still with you. I'd wanted to write this information down for my parents since I was very sure at that point I would need to ask them numerous questions in order to find the answers needed to complete the forms.

This was something I've had on my checklist to do since the traumatizing incident last summer and the library program earlier this year but hadn't gotten around to yet because 1) given its ties to genealogy, it could end up being a tremendous amount of work, and 2) there's something very uncomfortable, morbid even, about writing an obituary for yourself let alone one for a loved one who's still alive.

Merely looking up the definition of obituary in the dictionary gave me pause:

1. a notice of a death, especially in a newspaper, typically including a brief biography of the deceased person.

Similar words to "obituary" in the dictionary are eulogy (a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died), necrology (an obituary notice, a list of deaths), death notice, and necrologue (a published announcement of a death, usually with a short biography of the dead person).

Alas, I kept this unpleasant task on my to-do list, regardless of how disconcerting the idea of undertaking it was to me. When it finally came up in my rotation, I did an internet search with the words "obituary form". I looked at a few and eventually found something that had most of what I wanted. After some brainstorming with relatives, we were able to cull the form contents to what we thought were the best things to include. Once completed, the blank form was hardly more than a single page long.

Still, I was having trouble getting started for the same reasons as before. Filling out an obituary form for myself and family members still living was the height of "not fun". Additionally, I would have to broach the subject with my parents, and that seemed disturbing as well. "Look what I have here, Mom and Dad! Your death notices, all ready to publish!" No, that was even worse than simply doing it on my own and tactfully asking them questions I needed answers to in order to complete the form. While I was hemming and hawing about setting a date to do this work, it occurred to me that maybe I was going about the process all wrong.

The day came for me to sit down and fill out the form. Instead of labeling each individual's form an "Obituary" or "Death Details", I called it a "Details of Life" form. My perspective immediately changed with the revision that made all the difference. Yes, there was a whole lot of genealogy stuff that did bog me down, though I'd done a lot of work in that regard in years past. None of it was particularly organized, so locating and locking down specifics with accurate information was a bit of a trek. But even that was kind of fun as I learned and re-learned new things about the family.

Additionally, I found reminiscing about the past a lot of fun. I spent most of two days getting the new, compelling "Details of Life" filled in section by section for myself, my husband, and both of my parents. When I talked to my parents, it wasn't concerning the unpalatable things like "surviving family members or those who preceded in death" (those things, including a death date can be added later, when they're needed). We covered specific details about their lives that I'd either been told in the past and forgotten because I hadn't written them down before or that I'd unfathomably just never known about them.

Everything on this form, once completed, was something I would need to know to fill out a formal death notice and announcement eventually. In the meantime, it was a concise summary of the details of a life that I cherished and was profoundly grateful to know and share.

I've included a copy of my Details of Life form below, or you can find a PDF of it here:  

Celebrate life today while it's still today.

Details of Life

Name (full, including maiden and married names, and any nicknames):

All cities/states lived:

Approximate ages/years lived there:
Other details:

Date of birth:

Interesting stories of birth:

Place of birth and details:

Father (name, birth/death, cause of death, burial place, vocation, details):

Mother (include maiden name, birth/death, cause of death, burial place, vocation, details):

How did your parents meet?

Name of spouse (include maiden name):

How the person of focus on this form met his or her spouse:

Marriage date:

Your age:

How long you knew each other prior to marriage:

Place of marriage (city/state):

Ceremony information (church, city hall, etc.):

Wedding details


Reception location

Witnesses/Maid of Honor/Best Man:

Honeymoon date/location:

Names of children (could include birth/death, vocation):

Education (name/location of school, year graduated, focus of study, degree received):

Employment history: (business/locations, position title and description)

Military service (branch, boot camp location, years of service, places stationed, type(s) of work done):


Memory(ies) growing up and/or memorable one(s) of your life: 

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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  1. Very important, as we discovered when my brother-in-law recently died, having left only a short, sparse obituary for himself. My husband had to fill in at least a few details to make it substantial enough. I don't think this process is morbid at all. "Details of Life" is a good name for it. I've written my own obituary for submission to LOCUS, and I thought it was kind of fun. Years ago one of the kids gave me a notebook in the form of questions, for writing one's own life story (you've probably seen those), which I've filled out part of. That would be very useful for this purpose, I hope.

    1. Some people do find this process morbid, especially if the subject isn't yet deceased, but I did enjoy the process myself. Perspective can change (usually in a good way), seeing your own accomplishments, or those of loved ones.

    2. Some people do find this process morbid, especially if the subject isn't yet deceased, but I did enjoy the process myself. Perspective can change (usually in a good way), seeing your own accomplishments, and those of loved ones.