“I am going to die.”
What happens inside you when you let that statement sink into your body? Many of us experience fear and other difficult emotions. Many of us brush those difficult feelings under the carpet. But as we grow, that pile of dust under the carpet inevitably gets bigger and more difficult to ignore. We start tripping up over it.
Writing your own obituary is one of the most powerful exercises you can do to liberate that pile of dust from under your carpet, and transform it into life glitter. And you don’t need to wait until you are knocking on death’s door to do it.
Zoom in on the real juice
If you have ever had a sense that you are confused about your life’s purpose or that you are wasting so much time doing meaningless stuff, then this exercise will help you zoom in on the real juice, on what is most important to you.
People often find that when someone close to them dies, or when they have been faced with their own death, they experience a powerful shift in their focus, focusing intently on what is most precious to them. Often this feeling of connection, purpose and focus starts off strong and can fizzle out as the years pass by.
Writing your own obituary is a most glittery gift to yourself, as it can not only help you zoom in on the juice, but also will function as a document that can keep you accountable to your heart’s purpose. Whenever you start to notice feelings of confusion, meaningless, or lack of purpose, you will always have this document to refer back to and to adapt as necessary.
Now to the real thing
The first step in writing your own obituary is facing up to the reality that one day you will die. Both the ancient Greek Epicureans and Tibetan Buddhists meditated on a simple phrase to help them remember: ‘death is certain - the hour is uncertain’.
Repeating this phrase over and over may sound morbid to you. We naturally prefer to focus on the good stuff. This can certainly be a very challenging exercise. Great fear may be experienced at first. But if we can practice stillness in the midst of this fear of death, amazing gifts and crystal clear dreams await us.
Once you have meditated on the certainty of your own death, the next step is to start writing. To open your imagination, picture the scene of your death. Who is there? Who is likely to be reading the story of your life? What song would you have playing? As you imagine this scene, start to jot down some of the things that people who care about you would say in your obituary. It might be recognition of your qualities. It could be celebration of your achievements. It could be remembering fun times. As you make notes, you may notice that there are some parts of your obituary that you are not happy with. There may be judgments about certain aspects of yourself, maybe you didn’t spend enough time with close ones, maybe you didn’t have the courage to pursue your dreams, maybe you didn’t treat some people so well.
This not-so-shiny feedback is where the real juice lies.
In 1888 Alfred Nobel's brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred's obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite, stating Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead"). The obituary went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." This not so shiny feedback of his life catalysed Alfred’s decision to leave a better legacy after his death. It brought him to establish the Nobel Prizes.
When you have jotted your notes, it is now time to pull it all together. At this stage, it is wise to write your obituary form the perspective of having lived exactly the life you want in your heart of hearts to live. This means that you are imagining having addressed those not-so-shiny aspects of your self that have held you back from being the change you want to see in the world. The obituary does not need to be long or detailed. In writing this, it can be super helpful to come up with the tombstone statement: what one phrase would people put on your tombstone, if you have lived the life you truly want to live? Let that phrase be your guide, not only for this obituary, but also for your life.
Living the story of your life
Once you have written your obituary, now the real work begins. Find a sacred place to keep your obituary. It does not need to be visible, although this can really work for some people. Revisit the obituary at least once a week. Make a ritual and meditation of this practice. Find a quiet space, light some candles or get some nice smells going, read over the obituary and let it be a constant guide in your journey. If it stirs emotions in you, this is good. Channel these emotions into your actions. You may at times want to adapt the obituary, and this is absolutely fine. It is a working document, quite possibly the most powerful one you have ever written.