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Friday 13 Dec 2019

Writing Your Own Obit
David Simmonds

Baseball legend, Roger Maris, liked obits. “When you die,” he said, “they finally give you good reviews.” Comedian and movie producer, Carl Reiner, says he reads the obits every morning; if he isn’t listed, he eats breakfast.” As we age, days often begin with coffee, a cinnamon bun and the obits.


The uses of obituaries.

Well-written death notices are a treasure trove of information, regarding not only the deceased, but her or his times, too. Date of birth and death as well as associations drive the work of genealogists. A key challenge or accomplishment reveals what was important during the life of the deceased.

I look forward to reading the death notices because I am amazed at the sheer variety of human experience portrayed. I picked up a recent Saturday paper to sample a few lives. Here is a woman that came to Canada from Norway at age eight and worked for the Norwegian government in exile, in Toronto, during World War II.

There is a founding member of the chart-topping Four Lads singing group, from the distant pre-Beatles pop era. Here is a man who once owned the Victory burlesque theatre in Toronto. There is a 105-year-old woman who spent her career as a clinical psychologist.

I wish I had met these people. I wish I had the capacity to absorb the information of every life remembered. Perhaps, though, the deceased are better in memory than in life.

There is some essential information to convey in a death notice. You must identify the deceased and the key survivors. You must note what memorial events, if any, are taking place. You must specify how people can pay tribute, if they wish. You must thank those that need thanking. Otherwise, the floor is yours.

Although this is just an impression, it seems to me that death notices generally are becoming longer. This is possibly because funerals and even life celebrations are becoming less common. The death notice is increasingly the last word on someone’s life.

Do obituaries need to get longer? Do we really need to know that Shirley Schwartz was predeceased by her grandparents, who would be in their 130s by now? Do we need reminding of every position Stan Wilder held at Amalgamated Tubing; when he retired, in 1986, was Vice-president?

A story told succinctly can be more powerful than a lengthy discourse. “I was born, I blinked and it was over,” part of a self-penned by Emily Philips, is terseness at its best. An obituary need not be a panchreston.

A death causes everyone to overemphasize the good parts and overlook the bad parts of the dearly departed. Yet, some death notices are going over the top and present the life of the deceased as a series of magnificent accomplishments, duly recognized by a grateful public. Such obits always conclude by saying that despite all this frenetic achievement, what was most important to the deceased was family, who always came first: right.


Self-penned obituaries.

In these more florid death notices, I suspect the hand of the deceased is involved and that the spirit of one-upmanship has come into play. Who, at least at first blush, wouldn’t want to create their own death notice? After all, family may not know much of your earlier years and an obit is a chance to highlight what was important to you.  

I haven’t heard of a case in which a deceased person contractually bound his family to publish his version of the death notice. Perhaps survivors feel morally bound to polish the life of the deceased. Surely, though, the better measure of a person is not how he sees her- or himself, but how others see him or her.

The best death notices offer insight into the nature of the deceased. In my Saturday sample paper, there is a death notice for a former librarian that mentions her “great skill of selecting great children’s and young adult books,” which needs no elaboration. The obituary of a yachtsman notes he had won every trophy his club awarded, but that he was “not without idiosyncrasies,” which instantly paints a picture of a quirky type-A personality.

Death notices that offer some glimpse into the challenges a person has faced get more attention. In my Saturday paper, one notice stated the deceased “had to call upon courage throughout his life to deal with his personal mental health challenges”; another notice stated the deceased dealt with glioblastoma, but “it didn’t change his passion for cooking, hiking, fast cars, fine wine, cappuccinos and cinnamon buns.”


My own obit.

How would my death notice read, if I were to (i) die and (ii) write it? Here’s a try.

David Simmonds. 8 February 1953 to 7 June 2059 survived by his wife Michelle and children Erica and Jeremy. He adapted to his challenges with good humour, even if his columns failed to display it. About what was important, he should have listened to Michelle, more.

Thus, I make good on my recent threat to return to the subject of obituaries. Given the death rate when compared with available editorial space, few of us can expect to be beneficiary of an obituary written by the paper’s editorial staff; we’ll have to settle for the self-funded, family-written death notice. I offered a few guidelines to that end.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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