Improve Your Life With a DIY Obituary

You don't need to be famous to write your final words in advance

As is true for the Queen Mum, Billy Dee Williams, Shirley MacLaine and other aging famous people, my obituary is already in progress. The basic outline is there—born at Hahnemann Hospital under a soft pretzel moon; raised in Center City not far from Teddy Pendergrass; suffered first spiritual crisis when I saw my friend Denise in her Catholic school uniform. Marriage, divorce, death of pet turtle—all the key moments are there. It just needs fleshing out.

Fortunately for the journalistic profession, no one is being paid to update my obituary as time passes. I’m writing it myself—not to outfox death (which only happens in a Bergman film), but in order to dodge a life poorly lived.

My DIY obit is, ironically, a tool for living.

For many years, I worried more about tools for dying. I hoarded pills, cut out articles about accidental death, bought end-of-life manuals and sussed out rooftop access to tall buildings. The obsession with death prevented me from living with creativity; life was just about passing time until I found a graceful exit.

Around 2000, this changed. Despite numerous attempts, I was still alive. And I had to admit: Things weren’t that bad. I had a job I liked and a new apartment. Allen Iverson was on TV a lot. I bought a two-pound puppy who was learning to walk on a leash.

I couldn’t really complain—and that says a lot coming from me.

Around this time I started to get copies of my college alumni magazine. I went to a school that was deeply committed to social justice. It was seen as admirable to graduate and form a group called Hot Yoga for Peace. But if someone accidentally became a stockbroker? They were expected to keep it to themselves.

I never sent in a class note about myself. What could I say? “Liz Spikol, BA Creative Writing, has been eating Honeycomb cereal and thinking about death since graduation.” What really captured my attention, though, were the obits in the back. These people had done so much good for the world—not to mention so much recycling. They’d tried so many different things: They went from one profession to another; they gave of themselves freely; they traveled extensively; they challenged the norm. I would have been proud to live such a life, and that’s when it occurred to me: There’s still time.

I began to think of my life as a obit in progress, like a spectacularly macabre version of Mad Libs. I made a list of sentences I wanted in my obit: “She published a poem,” “She flew a plane,” “She traveled to India.” I wanted the obit to say, “Professionally, she did everything from blank to blank,” and I wanted the blanks to be wildly different.

Since I started the DIY obit, I have been more tenacious about experience, and more forgiving of my missteps. When I was laid off a few months ago, I forced myself to think about the obit. Who could say what would come next? Maybe it would read: “After being laid off from her job as a magazine editor, Spikol became an award-winning naturalist woodworker who did research in the jungles of Madagascar, where she found an abandoned baby lemur. Noodles was her constant companion until her death.”

Life can lead us anywhere, as thinking-about-writing-about-death amply proves.

The DIY obit is a lot like a bucket list, it’s true, but it gets to something deeper. A bucket list is about the things you want to do; the DIY obit is about the kind of person you want to be.

Maybe the last line of the obit will be this: “Spikol created the notion of the DIY obit and, as of her latest version, lived a life full of meaning. Meaning and copyediting.”