To many, obituaries might seem a sad business to be in, but nothing could be further from the truth for the people who write them. "I never mention how people die," said Anne Wroe, who has written obituaries for The Economist, in an interview with The Hairpin. "Because I don't think that's important at all. I think an obituary is a celebration of a life."
And within those printed "celebrations" are many common themes and lessons that can serve as inspiration for the rest of us -- about what truly matters and how we can make the most of the time we have left.
"People have a primal fear of death, but 98 percent of the obit has nothing to do with death, but with life," Margalit Fox, a writer with The New York Times told The Paris Review last fall.
"We like to say it's the jolliest department in the paper," she said. With that in mind, here are a few lessons obituaries can teach the rest of us about living better:
1. Don't wait.
Bryan Marquard, who has written obituaries for The Boston Globe, wrote a post on the many lessons he's learned in the course of writing about the lives of 800 people -- and one of those lessons is as simple as it is urgent: act now.
"Because I think about death a lot, I realized last year that if I live exactly as long as my father, I have 25 years left. That epiphany, along with other factors, led me to move from Greater Boston to a small town in Vermont," Marquard wrote. "It's a long commute to the Globe, but I love where I live. Take it from an obituary writer: Don't put off what you've always wanted to do."
2. Humor always has a place.
Occasionally, obituaries can be laugh-out-loud, reminding readers that humor and laughter are cherished commodities (with serious health benefits). They are often what people remember most about a person.
"You never want to make fun of anyone, but you do want to appreciate eccentricities, record unusual events and relay humorous incidents or comments," Bruce Weber, who has written obituaries for The New York Times, said in a 2008 Q&A. Take the example of this popular 2013 obituary for Mary Agnes Mullaney, known to friends and family as "Pink," which celebrated the many humorous lessons she imparted. "Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments," it said. "Do the Jumble every morning."
3. Be bold.
Obituary writer Laura Huber wrote about the things she's learned in a 2013 column for The Suffolk Times, and one of her primary messages is to "live a life worth writing about."
"I've written and read about people who sailed around the world, served in wars, taught children to read or took care of their grandchildren," she said. Whatever your passion, she continued, embrace it wholeheartedly, no matter what others think.
"If you love to write, start a blog. If you love music, play it loudly," Huber wrote. "If you love car racing, get on the track. You are more than the desk you sit behind or the children you birthed. Live passionately, at least a little bit, every day."
4. Be thankful.
When Death With Dignity advocate Brittany Maynard died in the fall of this year, her family released an "official" obituary that included a final message from the 29-year-old, and that centered on one thing: gratitude.
"In this final message, she wanted to express a note of deep thanks to all her beautiful, smart, wonderful, supportive friends whom she 'sought out like water' during her life and illness for insight, support and the shared experience of a beautiful life," the obituary stated. It ended with the following quote from Maynard herself: “It is people who pause to appreciate life and give thanks who are happiest."
5. Remember, everyone's human.
While obituaries cannot always paint a complete picture of an entire life, they can remind us that everyone -- no matter how famous or beloved -- is fallible, and that's okay. "Obituaries in The Times frequently refer to fiery tempers, marital infidelities, crimes committed -- things that can be attested to in interviews or documented by news accounts or other sources," Weber said in his New York Times Q&A.
Bob Chaundy, who has worked as an obituaries editor at the BBC for nearly two decades, wrote in The Independent: "If I find enough people saying a person had a particularly violent temper or could not suffer fools gladly, then I would include these frailties in order to make them appear more human."
6. Put relationships first.
While some people opt to write their own obituaries or even pay a professional obituary writer to do it for them, remembrances are most often written by friends and family or -- in the case of well-known individuals -- a staff writer for a given publication. Meaning that the story told not only hinges on how others remember an individual ("This is my chance to be on the phone, talking to family and friends, capturing that person," longtime obituary writer Kay Powell told CBS News), but that those memories often center on how he or she made others feel.
"Be nice," The Globe's Marquard wrote. "No matter what you accomplish, how you treat people has a lot to do with how you will be remembered."