STYLE

My last words: Gaining fresh perspective on life by writing your own obituary

04/28/2015 04:08 EDT | Updated 08/03/2015 11:59 EDT
Tom Scott has already drafted what will ultimately be his final story: his own obituary.

While many people are fearful and in denial about their own mortality, the Winnipeg native said contemplating his own last words and revisiting his past renewed his perspective on what has mattered most in life.

"As I drafted my own obit, what occurred to me is that I didn't want to talk about any of the things that I have done; so any career accomplishments, that sort of thing," said Scott, 55, a married father of two adult children and founding partner of consulting service company CS3 Partners.

"For me, it's how my friends and family have enriched my life. So it's not about me. It's about how all of these people around me have helped me — not so much me helping them. That's really my takeaway.... I've been very, very lucky. If it were to end today or tomorrow, I'd feel pretty good because I've had a very, very good life."

In taking ownership of a tough task typically left to loved ones or professional writers, many who have chosen to write their own obituary have injected their prose with ample personality — and even a little levity.

Few of the people who read the obituary of Emily DeBrayda Phillips — who died of pancreatic cancer in March — actually knew her. The humorous and heartfelt words written by the 69-year-old retired teacher went viral after they were published by the Florida Times-Union newspaper and on Jacksonville.com.

"It pains me to admit it, but apparently, I have passed away," Phillips wrote.

"Everyone told me it would happen one day but that's simply not something I wanted to hear, much less experience. Once again I didn't get things my way! That's been the story of my life all my life."

Jenni Aitken of Last Words, an obituary writing and consulting service in Victoria, said Phillips's obituary was particularly compelling because she wrote in a way that was down-to-earth and relatable.

"There was a sense of happiness and joy, and she was certainly having a good time in her life," Aitken said.

"If we come at the obituary as, 'this is your last kick at the can to say what matters' — which she did so beautifully — then people might see it as ... not about embracing death — it's about recognizing life."

Aitken said the best obituaries tend to be simple stories that are written in an authentic tone.

"If you write the way you speak and you tell your story, you will pull people in."

She recalled one obituary she wrote for a man who had built a zipline for his daughters on their farm.

"Every morning, he would take the zipline to work, so to speak, from the house to the barn. And he would be naked, and he would 'woo-hoo!' the whole time — and that was sort of him in a nutshell," she recalled with a laugh.

Aitken suggested a way to approach writing one's own obituary is to keep the autobiographical sketch to around 200 words.

"You've got a really limited space in which to talk about your life, and so it's the frugality of putting down the most important elements, but then save those words for telling an anecdote.

"By sharing a wee story, it speaks volumes about who you are."

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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