Margaret Knight, building on Chappaquiddick, 1973
I’m feeling pretty healthy and not that old, so I wouldn’t have thought to write my own obituary. But then I heard that Island teacher and storyteller Susan Klein had a class in obituary writing, and that there was lots of laughing involved. I had no idea what I’d put in my obituary. I hadn’t thought about my life from the point of view of it being over. I’d written about my experiences in life, but I hadn’t thought about what others might consider was meaningful or important. And in the end, an obituary is for others. I’ve always been on a search for identity, and I thought this class might help me figure out who I am — or who I was.
In some ways, it would make sense to write your obituary at age 30 and then try to live it. Because looking back at my life from the vantage point of age 66, there’s definitely a sense of fait accompli. It’s not regret, exactly, but a process of accepting that there’s nothing I can do about most of my life. Most of the big choices have been made, by me or by the universe, and I don’t have the drive or interest to make plans for the future. But, as Susan said about writing your obituary, “It’s a good way to gather your thoughts.”
It might sound odd or creepy to write your own obituary — like it might tempt fate. As a culture, we don’t invite death to be part of our lives. A wise teacher of mine said we think dying is only for those people who have already died. It’s hard to accept the death of yourself while you’re busy living. Writing my obituary had me thinking about all I did in my life, and who and what I’ve loved. It was a life-affirming experience.
In class, Susan gave us prompts. It’s difficult, at first, to think about the parts of one’s life, or even know what is important about it. Sometimes something is so much a part of your life that you don’t even think of it. When I was writing a list of my interests, I forgot about dancing, which I love and have done twice a week for most of my adult life.
Susan asked us, “What are the crossroads, the trajectories that took you in a new direction? What were the times you told the truth no matter what the repercussions? The times you changed someone’s life?” It was hard to think of myself changing anyone’s life, but without planning to, I had. When I got married, I got in touch with an old friend, and that led to her and her husband moving to the Vineyard, led to me finding a spiritual path, led to a lifelong collaboration of dance and music and friendship. If I hadn’t made the effort to find her, maybe none of that would have happened.
Susan read to us from “The Last Word,” a book of New York Times obituaries. These essays centered on the theme of whatever the person was famous for. When Susan asked us to do some writing based on a theme in our lives, I was inspired. First, I wrote about my life as a search for my true, authentic self. I fit all the major aspects of my life into this theme, from childhood to parenthood to old wife, from chicken owner to Alexander Technique teacher. Then I wrote about me as a Chappaquiddicker, how it grew me up, grew my family, and created a sense of home inside me. I wrote about me as gardener, and saw how the strands of my life intersected in the crossroad of my love for planting and tending living things. Writing with different themes is like writing your résumé to emphasize different skills and job experiences — but it’s hard to know what to emphasize when the job you’re applying for is death. Maybe the Grim Reaper would like to read about your positive, interesting aspects.
What are obituaries for, anyway? Is writing my obituary just a last-ditch effort to exert control over my life and make others see me in a certain light?
Maybe they are confirmation that we’re not a bunch of hogs on the conveyor belt, dropping off the end into oblivion with no one caring. Or maybe they are a way of sitting around the campfire, remembering the ancestors. They are a way of community building, and an affirmation of our interconnectedness. Each of us is a piece of the puzzle that fits perfectly into the hole that’s left when we leave.
Margaret Knight is a writer, a gardener, and a dancer, and lives on Chappaquiddick.