As part of my job, I’m writing an obituary for someone who’s still alive. It’s one of the rather odd things that you do in the news business — write about people in the past tense when they’re still with you.
Let me explain.
When news organizations know something is going to happen, they have a story ready to go. It’s called preparedness copy. It contains the relevant background, an explanation of how things got to this point, what it means going forward. When the event occurs, you top the preparedness story with a couple of paragraphs and send it out quickly as a starting point. The story will get updated and totally rewritten with more information and reaction as the day goes along.
The same process applies to obituaries.
News organizations have obituaries ready on well-known people who might be approaching death. Maybe they’re very old or very ill. Or doing something very dangerous. The story — referred to as an obit for short — is a starting point that will move when the person dies and will get updated many times.
Does it sound odd writing someone’s obit in advance? Yeah, it is. Also, really challenging. Imagine trying to sum up someone’s life in a few hundred words. It’s not really possible, but you do your best. You have to decide which details of their lives and which of their qualities to emphasize, which ones you should leave for lower in the story or even leave out entirely because of the space limitations.
I’m always uncomfortable writing someone’s obit. Am I doing their life justice? Am I presenting it as accurately as I can under the limitations? Am I choosing the right words? Am I capturing a little bit of what they were about?
Whenever I write someone’s obit, I’m also reminded that in a very real sense, I’m also writing my own. All of us are, actually. And I mean that in a good and constructive way.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, each of us is writing our obit each day. The lines consist of our various choices. How do we live? Who do we love?
How are we treating our little corner of the world? How are we using our lives? How much are we giving of ourselves? Are we making the lives of others better?
Are we bringing more love into the world or more apathy? Selflessness or selfishness? Kindness or condemnation? What kind of effect are we having?
Our obits are written in the lives and hearts of everyone we invite into our lives and our hearts. What do they say about us?
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously delivered his own obit in a speech the day before he was assassinated in 1968. He mentioned that he sometimes thought about what he’d like said about him after he was gone. He decided that he wanted to be remembered as someone who served others, who helped the needy, who was a drum major for peace.
“I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody,” is how he put it.
He lived his obit. Just as we do, too.
There’s one more part to this business of obits: They change regularly. News organizations routinely update their on-file obits so they will reflect what the person has done most recently and how they have changed their lives.
Our obits are constantly changing, too. They’re always a work in progress, changing a little with each heartbeat and each breath. We can hit the delete key anytime we want. Or underline something in bold to make it a more prominent part of our story.
We do the writing.
Perhaps it’s good to spend some time thinking about how our obits read right now. And how we would like to change them with the time we have left.
What are we saying with our lives?