An obituary is the last chance to tell a person’s story. I realize that after the wake, after the funeral, after the burial or cremation, tales continue to be told about those who have gone to the great beyond. But an obituary is that final chapter that, in the brief days after a person has passed on, provides a chronicle of who they were, what they did, why they are being mourned.
I love a good obituary. Oh, I understand how some people cling to the formatted, fill-in-the-blanks version that runs daily in newspapers like this one. I get that some family members want to ensure that proper respect is paid to Grandpa Joe or Aunt Maizie. That obit will be clipped and placed in a scrapbook or laminated and used as a bookmark in the family Bible, so it must adhere to the traditions to which we have grown accustomed.
But those aren’t the obits I like.
Some families infuse some personality into the obit to give readers a better sense of who the person was and why they will be missed. That last chapter becomes one of celebration rather than solemnity. People across the globe got to see a great example of that this week thanks to one man’s obit that exploded across the Internet.
All I know about Walter George Bruhl Jr. is what I read in his obituary, but based on that, I believe hanging out with him would have been a blast. Bruhl died Sunday in Delaware and his family was surprised to find that he had written his own obituary. And it’s fantastic.
It opens with a blatant reference to the Parrot Sketch from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which sets the comedic tone for the rest of the piece. One of my favorite lines: “He was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1935, a spinal disc in 1974, a large piece of his thyroid gland in 1988 and his prostate on March 27, 2000.”
Bruhl covered all of his life’s bases and his obit includes all the information you would find in most standard obituaries, only he infused it with his personal flair — which is what will make it and him memorable.
I have been an advocate for people writing their own obits for years. When I worked in Marion, Ind., my boss, Mike, kept a copy of his obit in his desk; he didn’t want to leave that task in the hands of someone who might leave out some important data and, he said, if he collapsed during a work shift he wanted us to be able to make deadline.
Mike’s fear actually came into play for another of my co-workers, a different Mike who I worked with in Rockford, Ill. This Mike died unexpectedly at home, and the task of writing a feature obituary story about him was given to a summer intern who couldn’t pick Mike out of a lineup if it included him, a bear, three tricycles and a cheese ball. The final story about Mike included no comments from the people who knew him best and who had worked with him for decades. As a final chapter, it was an unmitigated failure.
Writing your own obituary helps you control how people will remember you, but it also lessens the burden on your loved ones at the time of your death. Having written standard obits for my mother and father, I can tell you that the experience stunk on ice. Writing my mom’s was especially stressful and I still can’t read it without those feelings of loss and remorse flooding back.
Bruhl provides an amusing explanation for why he was cremated, along with a groaner of a joke about his urn. He closes with a request that instead of sending flowers, “Walt would hope that you will do an unexpected and unsolicited act of kindness for some poor unfortunate soul in his name.”
I didn’t know a thing about Walt Bruhl until this week. But because of a fantastic obit infused with color and personality and wit, I now know more about his life than his death. That’s how you close the book.