When writing an obituary, tap into how will they be genuinely remembered by those who loved them. I’m the writer in my family, which means that I am offered a great deal of unpaid work from my loved ones. If someone’s kid is applying for colleges, chances are high I’ll get an email asking if I have time to edit (i.e., completely rewrite) their personal essay. I’m also frequently paged to help with wedding toasts, job applications and dating profiles. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of saying no , and usually politely decline most of these solicitations for free editorial assistance, unless someone is asking for help with an obituary or eulogy. When it comes to composing or honing one’s words of remembrance, I’m almost always ready to lend a pen.
Why am I so eager to donate my time to this rather morbid type of writing? On one hand, it’s because, having written eulogies for loved ones, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to think clearly when grieving , and I imagine that, if you’re not used to writing every day, the task of crafting an obit can be mighty daunting; but my interest in eulogistic composition also stems from my fascination with the fact that in the end, we all become stories. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, sure, but also: words to words. Writing doesn’t get much more meaningful than that, and there’s nothing quite so moving as an obituary that truly captures and honors the spirit of the deceased.
Earlier this week, thousands of readers were blown away by an obit that did just that and then some. The obituary of 82-year-old Connecticuter Joe Heller , penned by his daughter Monique Heller, was praised as the “best obituary ever” by The New York Times , which also profiled Heller’s “wacky” funeral, a casual affair that saw his coffin carried off in a vintage Mack fire truck.
Monique Heller was unsparing in her remembrance of her father as a penny-pinching prankster, a hoarder with a soft spot for dogs (whom he gave hilariously vulgar names) and a “consummate napper” who spurned suits and snobbery. It’s possibly the funniest obituary ever to make the rounds online, and yet it is also incredibly loving and informative. The reader is given interesting facts about Heller’s life — like that he was a self-taught chemist, a volunteer firefighter and a Navy veteran. The reader is also provided essential details about Heller’s memorial service, where to send donations, and who survives him — but even these particulars are delivered in a sportive spirit of fun-poking and wit. What makes a great obit?
I never met Joe Heller, but boy, I wish I had. I also hope that if I’m ever responsible for writing the obit of someone very close to me that I can do half as good a job, because this obit, as Hannah Sentenac , a freelance writer who specializes in obituaries says, is “legendary.”