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Some Sonoma County residents learn to write their own obituaries

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Retired real estate agent Carol Collins-Swasey of Santa Rosa, who perished in the Tubbs fire, was remembered by her half brothers as a magical presence, who would come and go from their lives and become “older, smarter, prettier each visit.”

In her paid funeral notice, the Sutter Hospice Thrift volunteer also left a lasting impression on readers of the Press Democrat, who were charmed to learn that she was a “strong individual with a wicked sense of irreverent humor.”

In addition to an attractive photo of her as a younger woman, the funeral notice included playful excerpts from the obituary that the deceased insisted on writing herself: “If you are reading this,” she wrote, “I am dead. And no, I did not look this good when I checked out.”

“She was definitely a memorable person,” said Eloise Van Tassel of Sebastopol. “I wish I would have known her.”

Tasteful but macabre humor — the literary equivalent of an Edward Gorey drawing — also was evident in the “Write Your Obituary” workshop Van Tassel took last year at The Sitting Room in Penngrove.

The annual class is taught by writer Marie Thomas McNaughton, who has been archiving interesting women’s obituaries for the privately funded community library since 2007.

Those drawn to the offbeat writing class learn to commemorate the dead in a lively — as well as a lasting — fashion in a way intentionally created to take personal charge of the moment and cast off dour and sometimes sanctimonious social traditions.

“There was a lot of laughter among those of us who were there,” Van Tassel recalled, noting that creative obituaries are part of the growing trend of a more open attitude toward death.

All of us are getting older, and the taboo about death — shelving it and saying we’ll think about it next year — that’s leaving for a lot of people. —Writer and teacher Marie Thomas McNaughton

“All of us are getting older, and the taboo about death — shelving it and saying we’ll think about it next year — that’s leaving for a lot of people, and they’re thinking about it as a realistic thing.”

Make every word count

This year’s workshop, held on Oct. 27 to coincide with the whimsical Dia de los Muertos holiday in early November, offered lots of helpful writing advice to non-authors as well as practical tips on how to celebrate a life — your own or someone else’s — in a unique but succinct manner.

Unlike a news obituary, which is typically written about prominent people by professional journalists, the DIY funeral notice is usually penned by a family member or friend, and often comes with a price tag, which can be fairly steep.

“You have to think about it as if it was a haiku,” McNaughton said. “You have to make every character count. You’re paying for all that, and all the spaces too.”

McNaughton pointed out that the process of writing a funeral notice can help a family prepare for other bereavement experiences, such as getting interviewed for an obituary.

You need to know the same information for both: full name of deceased, date and place of death and birth, names of relatives, education, occupation, memberships in churches and other organizations, time and place of the funeral or memorial service, details of the burial, and a recipient for memorial gifts.

Summing up a life

The exercise of summing up one’s life, McNaughton said, is a good way for people to start thinking about their own inevitable demise, and the way they want it to play out — what colors will be worn at your funeral, what kind of music do you want played, what poems or scriptures do you want spoken.?

“We are allowing ourselves to think differently about death and dying,” she said.

“Some people have celebrations of life before they die ... We don’t have to fight to the last inch. We can embrace a kind of mindful dying.”

The class also embraces a more mindful approach by avoiding hackneyed expressions such as “a long battle with cancer” and instead, celebrating that person with their quirks as well as their accomplishments.

“I try to bring in as much humor as possible,” McNaugton said.

“This year I picked up a wine, Dearly Beloved’s Forever Red, which has a sugar skull on the label.”

Some folks come just for fun while others are looking for practical guidance. Van Tassel said she wanted to pick up some tips for writing an obit for herself, having already gone through the process when her husband died 18 years ago.

“Even though I’m getting old, my story isn’t over yet,” Van Tassel said. “I would like to be able to do that for myself.”

Writing your own life story also makes it easier for your survivors, giving them a framework on which to hang their own impressions.

“Get it out there,” said J.J. Wilson, who co-founded The Sitting Room in the 1980s.

“What you think is important about you. Don’t let somebody else get the last word.”

Like The Sitting Room itself, which focuses on women’s issues, the obit writing class fulfills a feminist agenda of bringing remarkable women to light, as the New York Times did earlier this year in its “Overlooked” special section that added “stories of other remarkable people,” mostly women, from its 167-year history.

Women were not getting obituaries. We have to write our own. And the idea is to learn about other women’s lives and celebrate them. — Writer and teacher Marie Thomas McNaughton

“Women were not getting obituaries,” McNaughton said. “We have to write our own. And the idea is to learn about other women’s lives and celebrate them.”

'Funeral Food, Tips and Tales'

Wilson came up with the idea of the obit-writing class in 2010, after she picked up a copy of “Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales,” written and compiled as a benefit for the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, Va.

The community cookbook provides funeral history lessons and etiquette tips for all kinds of bereavement situations, from what to say to the bereaved at a funeral to how to write thank yous for funeral foods, along with recipes for the “much maligned casserole” and other favorite funeral foods from Southern Virginia.

The tone of the book, like the obit-writing class, blends a heavy dollop of realism with splash of wry humor. The book also provides tips on writing obituaries, such as “Be a little more generous with your praise only where it feels appropriate. Insincerity reeks.”

Even if one starts out with a giggle and a wink, the serious nature of the task often sinks in after time as the writer starts to ponder their own life or their relationship with the deceased. There is also the additional pressure of trying to get all the facts straight.

“There is some tough stuff that goes on,” McNaughton said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about obits because you want to get it right.”

“I think it takes a couple times to get it,” Wilson said. “I started writing my own obit with my tongue in my cheek, and it ended up serious. So the form had an effect on even someone as frivolous-minded as me.”

Growing up with ghosts

Death and its storytelling opportunities come naturally to McNaughton, who had several family members who died early.

“I grew up Irish, which means going to a lot of wakes, so I had a whole tradition to call upon,” she said. “I was the youngest (child) of the youngest (child), so I grew up with ghosts ... I listened to the adults talking to find out about the people who had passed.”

In the class, she always starts by going over the basic form of an obituary and examples of how it has been followed, as well as twisted and broken, by a variety of writers, including ones with vivid imaginations.

In the latter category, she includes an obit she wrote for herself, or rather, the fictional person that she always wanted to be.

Imagining her death at 90, she fantasizes in the obit that she died in “equanimity while contemplating the Pacific from her beach house patio in Marin County.”

She also wrote an obit for her grandmother as an example of why you don’t want your grandchildren to write your obit.

“I wrote, ‘She liked to eat lemon drops,’” she said. “That’s all I knew about her life.”

Next, she talks about generally writing techniques that make an obit sing — the verbs and the adjectives — because you need to describe people, and how they lived their lives.

Finally, she hands out a clipboards and colored Post-its and asks people to write one thing on each Post-it and color theme the comments to family, career and hobbies. That way the writing can seem less intimidating.

“A lot of people have fear of leaping in, and I try to ease them into the water,” she said.

“All they have to do is write something on a Post-it ... get your ideas out. Get them in a row. Then you feel like you’re writing something.”

In order to create an interesting story, McNaughton suggests they avoid what she considers a faux pas, such as starting out with the cause of the person’s death.

“This is the chance for someone to come alive for the last time,” she said. “Clearly they’ve died. It’s an obituary.”

If you want to include it, she suggests slipping in a clue at the end, when you state “Donations may be made to ...”

Although families often collaborate on writing funeral notices together, McNaughton said it’s often easier to go through the initial writing process surrounded by strangers.

“Either people don’t want to sit down with family,” she said. “Or they want to be ready for that process.”

Obits gone wrong

Then there are the feuding families, whose efforts at memorializing their loved ones are at cross-purposes and result in obits gone horribly wrong.

“Sometimes, it’s a chance to get back at someone ... people pay for the obits, so they can say what they want,” she said. “And sometimes, there will be dual obits, where competing branches of the family publish different obits. “

Digging into family history may also lead to questions about family myths, which these days can be easily debunked with DNA tests.

“My dad always told us our great-grandmother was Cherokee, but I had my DNA done and that wasn’t true,” McNaughton said.

“Then I found my grandfather’s draft register paperwork, and he said he was German. All my life I thought he was Welsh.”

Writing an obituary for a loved one before they die is often a good tactic, because it gives you more time to craft the story without having to deal with the emotional turmoil of grief.

And your family may thank you someday.

“One woman wrote an obit about her mother in the class, and damned if her mother didn’t die,” McNaughton said.

“She went back home for the funeral — she has tons of siblings, and she was the black sheep — but they needed to have a death notice.

“Suddenly she was the hero of the family.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.