ATLANTA – There’s no reason to believe Francie Mooney hasn’t got a lot more living to do.
And yet for the past year, she and her 87-year-old mother, Lucy Lynch, have been busy preparing for death, convinced that the best way to leave behind a coherent, meaningful and complete summary of their lives is to write it themselves.
In doing so, they are among a growing number of people here and across the globe who are penning their own obituaries.
Mooney, 62, of Riverdale, Ga. bought the “ObitKit: A Guide to Celebrating Life” shortly after her husband’s death in 2008 for herself and dozens of family members and friends.
“You drive through the cemetery and all you see on tombstones is the person’s name, their birthday and date they died,” Mooney said. “The ObitKit forces you to go beyond that and to be a bit more reflective.”
Pre-written obits can be a way for people to spare family members from having “to burden themselves with making decisions when they’re heartbroken,” said Susan Soper, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who created the “ObitKit.”
Soper said the “ObitKit” is really meant to be a parting gift to friends and family.
“It’s the gift of peace of mind that they are carrying out your last wishes,” she said.
Lori Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said the trend is a fairly recent phenomenon.
“Rules or what we call norms about etiquette and appearing to be self-promoting probably prevented this in the past,” she said. “But the Internet and social media are all about self-promotion, and my guess is that this is connected to that trend.”
Perhaps more important than anything is the desire to fill in the blank between the year someone was born and the day they died.
That is what inspired Soper to write the “ObitKit” and David McConkey of Canada to launch her website, obituaryguide.com.
McConkey said the site is a resource for people who recognize the importance of planning and want to write their own obit. More than 1 million people have visited the site since its launch five years ago.
“The rich and famous get obits written by professionals,” she said, “but most of us who need to write an obituary for a family member don’t know how.” Soper says when her grandmother died in 1983, she left a folder of instructions.
“It was just incredibly helpful,” she said, “but it didn’t dawn on me how much until my father died unexpectedly.” As she and her siblings tried to piece together his life, they discovered they had few details.
That was in 1996. In 2004, Soper began culling together the “ObitKit” and has sold some 4,000 copies since it was published in 2009. The workbook was recently featured on the AARP website and is available at www.obitkit.com.
“It’s a guide,” Soper said. “It includes tips for planning the memorial service, conveying sympathy and keeping the spirit of the deceased alive.”
An obituary, Brown said, is one of those last platforms to tell your story, and writing your own means you get to control how others view you.
“We are a society where people are much more mobile, and having a community full of people who know all about your childhood, military service, college, children, grandchildren is far less likely,” Brown said. “So this is a reflection of a loss of community and really of strong connections to family.”
Mooney began working on her obit after a series of deaths in her family, including that of her husband.
“When that happens, it’s as if you’re not prepared,” Mooney said. “You don’t really do justice to the person who passed away if you haven’t given thought to it.”
Although they’d been married 38 years, Mooney said it was tough filling in the blank between the time Otto “Skip” Mooney Jr. was born in 1946 and the day he died in 2008.
“We talked about a lot of things and I mentally took notes,” she said, “but we never really sat down to write his obit.”
Unable to sleep one night, she wrote his obituary: “Skip’s much loved, well lived life on earth ended at Hospice Atlanta. He loved his wife, his 25 pound cat Sam, his family, friends, the beach and University of Alabama Football, though not necessarily in that order.”
When her father died last year, Mooney was forced to repeat the exercise. Since then, she and her mother have been slowly piecing together their own stories.
“We have a lot of loose notes,” she said, “but we aren’t finished.” Helen Woodward Brewster of Alpharetta, Ga., was relieved her late husband, William Brewster Jr., took the initiative long before their marriage.
“I think there were a lot of personal issues that made him do it,” Brewster said. At 87, however, she has no interest in doing the same thing.
“I do not have any desire to have an obit and threaten to haunt anyone who puts my picture in the paper,” she said, laughing. “They can say what they want about me when I’m gone.”