Why I’m reading the weekend obituaries

J K Rowling quote

Last week I started my coaching journey on the other side of the table. As a coachee. Step 0 in the process of building the coach-coachee relationship involves me indulging in a little self-reflection. Where have I been? What do I value? Where do I want to improve? After a week, two spaces remain stubbornly blank on my questionnaire. These are the three inch gaps prefaced by the questions “How do you want to be remembered?” and “What would have to happen in your life for you to feel you have few or no regrets?”.

Death isn’t something most of us dwell on too readily. Unless of course you’re Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work, which I picked up in our local library. “I read the obituaries every morning,” explains Kleon. “Obituaries are like near-death experience for cowards”. He goes on to explain how “thinking about death every morning makes me want to live”. I suspect Kleon probably doesn’t then trot off to a job emptying dog poo bins, packing aeroplane dinners on an assembly line or even sitting 9-5 in a grey monolithic office block. But I’ve willing to plunge the coffee, and myself, into a three month back catalogue of the recently departed.

The answers I unlocked told me I’d like to be remembered:

  1. As an equal: scanning the Guardian obituaries there are still startlingly fewer women’s lives being celebrated than men’s. It’s perhaps not surprising as an average 80 year old woman dying today was likely to have married at age 22, and was probably sprogged up by the time the swinging sixties hit Britain. But it surprises me that there remain less noteworthy things to say about the lives of women in 2015 than their male counterparts.
  2. As someone who had a strong, loving significant relationship: undoubtedly the saddest obituaries were those that included little or no mention of a significant other. Whilst it’s sad to know John or Joan is survived by their long term partner. It’s good to know that someone loved them and that they were capable of loving another. This, and the adjectives used to describe their character, tells me far more than the bland roll call of positions they held at work. No one has ever been fondly remembered as a workaholic!
  3. As imperfect but honest about it and always striving to be the best I could: far too many obituaries present an overly sanitised, rose-tinted life story, as if anything less would be disloyal. They describe a faultless, selfless person. A person who gave and took nothing. Presumably they didn’t even take any satisfaction out of helping others. The problem is I don’t believe in saints any more than I believe in santa. I also like my heros and heroines believable and that means being a little bit flawed.
  4. As someone who grew to be more confident: it’s genuinely inspiring to read obituaries that show the evolution of a person across their life. It’d be easy to assume that Jackie Collins rattled off 32 novels lightly. In fact her obituary tells us she’d “abandoned many novels after a few chapters”. It took her future husband to tell her she was a storyteller for her to believe it and finish her bestseller, The World is Full of Married Men. As Austin Kleon summises, “You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it”. Collins certainly found hers, selling nearly half a billion books. By all accounts, she continued to evolve into the digital age as a self-publisher of e-books and using social media to keep her plots current.
  5. As someone who never stopped learning about the world around her: the stories that truly resonate with me aren’t those where someone dedicates themselves unreservedly to any single thing. Whilst I respect their discipline and perseverance, it’s the lives of the ordinary reinventors that stand out. Like Margaret Lawson, whose granddaughter writes about the woman who went to university at 67 after raising 7 children and lived on campus with her homemade jam. Or Jane Allain who started out as a secretary and went on to become a cafe owner, spice grinder, toured with a theatre company and finally became a social worker. These ladies remained enquiring about the world around them throughout their lives. Surely our best form of defence against ignorance and intolerance?

Create a life you are proud to remember!

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