Your Obituary, by Rich Paschall
“Karen Lewis was fearless.” It was the opening line of her obituary on the Chicago Sun-Times website. The Chicago Teachers Union President had endured treatment for brain cancer in 2015. In October of 2017 she had suffered a stroke. She had surgery for a malignant brain tumor. Through it all she battled on, and was widely respected for her tenacity and survival.
It was no surprise that her death would highlight the courage of her struggles. There was just one little problem with the story as was mentioned on Lewis’ Facebook page, “Contrary to an unfortunate slip, I am not dead.”
Yes, the 64-year-old labor leader and brain cancer survivor is alive and living in Chicago.
Did you ever wonder how a periodical could publish a lengthy story on a famous person’s life just moments after they die? Obituaries for prominent people are usually written before their deaths. They may be updated from time to time and only need minor edits when a famous person finally goes to the great beyond (or wherever it is you think people go for an “after life”) . When celebrities drop dead, it is no time to start researching the details of their lives. Pre-written obituaries are a common practice. Publishing them while the person is still alive is not.
Few get to learn of their own death while they are still alive. Apparently Lewis took the error in good humor. The obituary, which was online for a few hours, was taken down before Lewis or family members had seen it. She did learn of the opening line, however. Apparently believing the long time Chicago publication would have to say nice things of the dead, Lewis commented, “I think it’s a mitzvah…but I’m not sure it’s true.”
“James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.” – Mark Twain
While Mark Twain was on a world speaking tour in 1897, a London-based reporter was sent learn of the condition of Twain’s health. If Twain was dead, the reporter, Frank Marshall White, should send back 1000 words to the New York Journal. If alive, apparently 500 words would do. Meanwhile, according to legend, one paper had indeed printed an obituary for Twain. Was the great American humorist amused by this?
White wrote an article that appeared in the NY Journal in June of 1897. In part he said:
“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London …”
Twain had sent back in writing what is now an often misquoted response. Twain’s hand-written response is restated above.
What if your obituary appeared online? What would it say? Would it recount that you are “fearless?” Would it see you as a great humorist? Would it recount the highlights of your life? Or would there be little to say? Would anything written be supplied by relatives after your death?
If someone was charged with writing a thousand words about your life, and you could read them now, how would this influence you? If the words were kind and encouraging, would this lead you to a better life? Would you try to live up to the words someone was about to supply upon your death? Would you try to have all the qualities relayed about you? Would you try to build on that legacy?
What if the words were not at all flattering? Would that inspire you to change your ways? Would you have a Scrooge-like awakening and live a better life? Would you be more kind? More generous? More loving?
We probably do not think much about our own obituaries. Those who do not have much public standing in the community will not get much more than the standard newspaper notice that includes a list of relatives and the time of funeral services. But what if you have a little bit of notoriety? Do you care what is written as your legacy when you are gone? What influence would there be on your life if you could read your obituary as it would be published today?
Even without online or social media notices, or publication in the local or national newspapers, we will all get an obituary, so to speak, in eulogies at funerals or memorial services. If these do not exist for you (and why not?) then there are the comments of your family and friends when they gather to honor your memory. If cousin Lewis is likely to sing your praises, having been a drinking buddy and travel companion, Aunt Bertha might just come along and upset the gladioli cart with her honest opinions of your character.
Your homework assignment before we convene here again next Sunday is to write your obituary. Pick out the highlights and significant life events. Write it all down. Is that really what someone would write in your obituary? Seriously? If it is not exactly what you want, dear Ebenezer, it may not be too late to change, as the report of your death has been grossly exaggerated.