A living eulogy

It’s been a year of pretty extraordinary eulogies. Between the funeral services for people like Aretha Franklin and Sen. John McCain and Anthony Bourdain, I’ve logged a few hours watching and reading tributes.

What struck me with all of them was the intimacy of the personal stories told. After hearing the solemn and celebratory memorials, I felt as though I knew Aretha and Anthony well enough that they could have stopped at my house for dinner and a drink. Such is the beauty of well-written and spoken praise.

For the record, I loved the small, seemingly inconsequential stories of John McCain, like the passing conversations heard in the hallway and the encouragement he shared with fellow colleagues. My favourite was the story of him intently standing six inches from George W. Bush’s face before a presidential debate, telling him to relax so he would be at his best. That tells me more about Mr. McCain than his entire list of accomplishments.

I will confess: when I pick up the newspaper, right after I do the crossword, I read the obituaries; all of them. While I don’t know most of the people, I quickly come to appreciate their life a bit more than if had I just read their name. She loved time spent with her family, especially making mittens for each of the grandchildren. He never missed a hockey game with his kids. She helped veterans with her advocacy and fundraising. He retired as an officer at the fire department. She enjoyed spending time with her quilting club.

It was with this in mind that I approached writing my grandparents’ obituaries. Even as they progressed into their late 90s, I had never given much thought to what their obituaries might include (it didn’t even occur to me that I would be the one to write them). When the time came, though, five years apart, it became very important that I capture the specific stories and characteristics that made them unique and special. Yes, Grandpa was in the army in World War II, but I think he’d have prefered people know about his garden. And Grandma might have run the store for decades, but I’m sure she’d have loved people to remember her for warming up all her grandkids’ boots in the woodstove before they left for school in the winter.

As I read obituaries I think, yes, that was a life well lived. Followed by, what would I want to be said about me?

In one of my first-year writing classes at Saint Mary’s I was given that assignment, to write my own eulogy. Expecting a much easier topic, like favourite movie or childhood memory, I remember having to recalibrate and pause to consider such a jarring question, how would I want to be remembered after I’m gone. At the end of that day of class, to get the writing flow going, a few eager beavers volunteered to share their responses. It turned out to be an emotional purge, and every person who read aloud couldn’t get through their recitation without crying.

Wanna get to the core of what your life should be while you’re still living? Write your eulogy. Listening to my coursemates was so eye-opening that it occurred to me it was probably a good idea for everyone to write their memorial tribute while they’re still living. It is a humbling exercise to write what you want to be known for.

Everyone will have an obituary, hard though it may be to think about that. What will we do in the meantime – write that. Do it. It will give you such a fresh perspective on your life. What I learned in the process of that university writing assignment, and in the years since, is that everyone loves a story. Even scars are experiences lived, so tell it all – the more real you are, the more connected you will be to the people reading it. Tell the story that you thought didn’t matter. The one you thought you’d never tell out loud. The story that made you who you are. Those are the things you want to leave behind.

I think we have it backwards – eulogies should be given while we are still alive. While I doubt this will become a trend, maybe the best thing to do is live the life you want to be written about. Isn’t that the best tribute of all?