Hilarie Stelfox: Reports of his death were exaggerated

THIS WEEK I have been toying with the idea of writing my own obituary.

THIS WEEK I have been toying with the idea of writing my own obituary.

It’s not that I am planning to die any day soon, it’s just that if I was to slip under a bus then I’d like to leave an accurate precis of my life story.

I started thinking about all this last week when I heard the sad news that a former colleague, arts correspondent David Hammond, had died suddenly in hospital.

While David had spent a lifetime writing about other people, he rarely wrote about himself and it was discovered that we knew less than we thought we did of his life. His obituary had to be pieced together from a variety of sources.

Some weeks ago The Examiner lost another of its former journalists, Will Venters, but on this occasion we were able to run an obituary that he had penned himself in anticipation of the day it would be needed.

Obituaries used to be the bread and butter of local papers. Junior reporters would be sent to cover funerals and glean information from mourners about the deceased.

When I trained back in the late 1970s juniors were rarely allowed to touch stories other than obituaries, golden weddings and retirements. We acquired a certain expertise at waxing lyrical about a departed one’s achievements.

Of course, there are certain considerations and difficulties relating to writing one’s own epitaph.

For example, it wouldn’t do at all to seem too self-congratulatory or to say too many nice things about oneself. I’d like to leave that to my colleagues!

And there’s always the danger of the obituary being used prematurely.

Wikipedia has an extensive list of those who were killed off by newspapers or rumoured to be dead before their time. The most famous of all, of course, is Mark Twain, who was quoted as saying that “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” In fact there was no newspaper report, only rumour, and it was his cousin who was near death.

And so, I think the best thing we can all do is to simply make a list of where we have come from and what we have done with our lives and post it on FaceBook or stash it away somewhere safe. Even if our obituaries never make it onto the pages of a newspaper they will serve as a chapter of family history for those left behind.

As it happens digital technology makes this an incredibly easy thing to do. There will be a surfeit of information and trivial detail for the obituary writers and genealogists of the future. However, we should all bear in mind that whatever we post on a social network site will stay there long after we’re gone so we need to make sure that the photographs do us justice.

It would have been interesting indeed if my ancestors had all left written documentation about themselves. Instead of having to rely on hearsay and half-remembered snippets of information, I’d now be able to get my family history direct from the ancestors themselves.

I always think it’s a shame, for example, that the people of the past didn’t have more information engraved on their gravestones. Wandering around churchyards I’m frequently struck by the economy of words. I want to know more about these people because I have a strong streak of curiosity. But I guess it cost too much to have anything other than ‘dearly beloved wife of.....’ inscribed in stone.

But the current generation really has no excuse for not leaving a full account of themselves. Our voices can speak from the grave if we want them to, but will require a little forward planning.

Now, where shall I begin?

 

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