The auto-obituary is in the news because several have recently gone viral and are amusing people worldwide
(USA Today) Call it the "selfie obit."
Can't trust the local newspaper, the funeral home or even your family to get your obituary just right? Write it yourself before you go.
Some famous people have done it (Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau regularly jokes about his in his speeches), and now the idea seems to be spreading among ordinary Americans.
Put it down to the "selfie" lifestyle of social media, and to the aging baby-boomer generation's enduring need to exert control over every facet of their lives, including the end. Or maybe it's the triumph of the DIY movement.
The auto-obituary, as it's sometimes called, is in the news because several have recently gone viral, touching, shocking or amusing people worldwide. Type in "self obituary" on YouTube and there are about 10,000 results.
"Obits going viral is a huge phenomenon now," said Susan Soper, 66, a formerAtlanta newspaper editor who helps people organize their final wishes, including how to write their own obituaries. Since 2009, she's sold thousands of $20 "Obitkits" that show people how to sum up their lives in ways meaningful to them.
Many of the recent selfie obits have been penned by non-celebrities. But included among them was one done by the character actor James Rebhorn, who appeared on Homeland, among many other TV and movie roles, and died of skin cancer on March 21 at age 65.
Soon after, Rebhorn's self-penned obituary, written in the third person, appeared on the website of his church, St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Jersey City, N.J. Its overall message was that he considered himself a lucky man in every way.
Without his wife and two daughters, he wrote, "his life would have been little more than a vapor." He urged his children to mourn him only as long as necessary, because "they have much good work to do, and they should get busy doing it."
His selfie did not replace the media-written obits, but it allowed Rebhorn to control what he wanted to say about himself and to his family.
"That is a big trend," said Soper. "Control is a big issue for the baby-boomer generation — they want to control everything about their lives, including what is said about them (after death). They want to make sure it's right."
Other recent selfie obits, some including videos, have attracted attention.
Walter George Bruhl Jr., of New Jersey and Delaware, who died March 9 at age 80, wrote one that was posted on a local paper's website. He opened with an echo of a memorably wacky Monty Python sketch about a dead parrot: Bruhl "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, he has expired and gone to meet his maker," he wrote.
When Val Patterson died of throat cancer in 2012 just shy of age 60, his first-person obit in the Salt Lake Tribune included some confessions: "As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June 1971," he wrote. Also, his doctorate from the University of Utah? Phony; he didn't even graduate.
Seattle-based humor writer and editor Jane Catherine Lotter, who died of cancer in July 2013 at age 60, wrote a selfie obit that was published in the Seattle Times. She wrote that dying meant no longer having to bother with sunscreen and/or worrying about cholesterol.
"I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful," she wrote.
Another Seattle-area woman, Elizabeth Sleasman, who died in August 2013 at age 37, after 25 years of drugs and alcohol abuse, wanted to warn others about the dangers of addiction in her selfie obit, published in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "I have quit now, but I am dead; don't wait as long as I did," she wrote.
Writing your own obit is not entirely a new idea. Boston writer Alex Beam has pointed out in his columns on death and death-related topics ("Yeah, I'm into death," he said) that they're kind of old hat in Britain, where obituary writing at major newspapers has long been a fine art performed with rapier wit. (It helps there are so many British eccentrics to provide good material, he said.)
One famous selfie obit writer, he said, was the British comic Spike Milligan (The Goon Show) who was shocked to discover that an Australian newspaper's pre-written obit on him (many newspapers do this for famous people) consisted of a measly 30 words.
So, in 1990, Milligan wrote his own obit, riffing madly throughout. On his service during WWII, he wrote: "North Africa, promoted in the field (they wouldn't let me indoors). Mentioned in dispatches: nothing positive, just mentioned." When Milligan died in 2002, London papers reprinted his selfie obit alongside fulsome media obits.
Beam has done his own satiric obit, which he wrote about in a New York Timescolumn last year. It concludes with this: "Beam is survived by a multitude of children and several wives, none of whom was eager to be identified at this time."
The selfie obit is part of a bigger phenomenon: a wider cultural acceptance of talking about death. Online websites such as Legacy.com proliferate. There are "Death Cafes," where people meet regularly to talk about passing, or the Let's Have Dinner and Talk about Death movement, where people do the same.
"People are talking about death in ways they never did before," said Soper.
Advising people to write their own obits while they still can is a natural progression, said Ronni Bennett, 73, a self-described "elder-blogger" (blogging about and for old people) who tells her thousands of readers on TimeGoesBy.net to make the effort.
"If you're a blogger, write a final blog post that starts with, 'If you're reading this, I'm dead,'" said Bennett, who lives near Portland, Ore., and has been blogging for 10 years.
Elderly blog communities tend to be intense, she said, and if someone dies, the rest of the community may not hear about it or know about it for months or longer. Thus, the final blog post, which survivors can post for them.
Older people, Bennett said, are not as comfortable talking about themselves, let alone posting selfies and tweeting to multitudes online. But now it's all about branding, she noted, especially among the children and grandchildren of the boomers.
"Even in death, there's self-promotion," she said. "So many more people are accustomed to writing and talking about themselves online, there are a zillion social networking sites. We're going to see more (selfie obits)."
She said her final blog post is already written. "But that reminds me: I have to update it."