More Turn to Colorful, Confessing Self-Written Obituaries

Before death comes knocking, the living are turning to self-written obituaries.

ByABC News
August 17, 2012, 3:43 PM

Aug. 19, 2012— -- They could be your last words, so why not make them count?More people are penning their own obituaries well before death comes knocking and even taking courses or hiring pros to do the job.

When people die, hurried and cash-strapped family members are often left with no choice but to have bare-boned obituaries published, veteran obituary writer Barbara Bryan of Davidson, N.C., who teaches a course on self-writing obituaries, told ABC News. And with that in mind, dozens of students have come to her for a lesson in how to put their own stamp on their legacies.

"When I started in the newspaper in 1960, I wrote a bunch of obituaries and it was so obvious that so many times the family didn't really know much about the person," said Bryan.

When students come to her classes, Bryan said, "first they think it's macabre then they realize, 'you know what, if I don't do this someone could really mess this up.'"

Some take obituary-writing classes like the one Bryan teaches, and others like Rachel Kuhe and her husband Peter Hegener used an obituary writing kit they had delivered to their door, according to the Boston Globe.

From settling scores to coming clean, it's not unheard of for these messages from the recently departed to take on life of their own. Val Patterson, a scientist from Salt Lake City, made headlines in July when after his death in his obit he admitted to falsifying his PhD and owned up to a decades-old robbery.

It was also his chance to say a final goodbye to his wife, Mary Jane.

"My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me," Patterson wrote. "Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments."

The desire to have a say in one's own legacy is what drove Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to commission author Walter Isaacson to write his biography before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2011.

"I wanted my kids to know me," Jobs said according to Issacson. "I wasn't always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did."

Especially in these cash-strapped times, the do-it-yourself obituary can be a more affordable way to make those last words exactly what you want them to be.

Larken Bradley, an obituary writer in Point Reyes Station, Calif., charges $125 an hour to write obituaries—a salary she considers "professional" for a task that can take up to 6 hours to do correctly.

"People who tend to come to me consider it a part of end of life expenses," Bradley told ABC News.

For the last seven years, Bradley has also offered do-it-yourself obituary classes at the Tamalpais Union High School District adult and community education program, where she teaches her students to approach the job as a journalist would.

Of course, self-obituaries offer a unique opportunity to white-wash or dramatize their otherwise mundane lives.

"People can make things up. As a reporter, people can make things up also," Bradley said. "Your quirks and foibles make for interesting reading. I encourage people to liven it up."

However Bradley, 59, says she's not quite ready to pen her own."I don't feel like reviewing my life right now. I don't really want to look at the areas where I could be doing better," she said. "I feel very sad when thinking of writing my own obituary and really reflecting on my life.'

But others are surprising pragmatic about impending death. Ellen Gower, 72, told the Boston Globe that she has no interest in putting off the inevitable.

"We're all going to die. Why not fashion your obit the way you would want it to read? Why wouldn't you make sure you don't put the onus on someone else?"