Rage, rage against the dying of the light: Phrases not to use in my obituary

Get real. People die. Do it all the time. Right now, this very minute.

But usually not in the obituaries, nosirree bob. What happens there, according to my hometown paper, is that people:
  • Pass away, sometimes peacefully/ at home/ with family at one’s side/ following a courageous X-year battle with [disease name here]
  • Go to be with our Lord, or with our Lord and Savior (in our town, at least since I started paying attention, no one has gone to Paradise, attained moksha or nirvana or samadhi, or moved on to any other non-Christian afterlife destination)
  • Enter into rest
  • (or, more dramatically and definitively) Pass into eternal rest
  • (with more detail about how they qualified for the rest) Peacefully are set free and enter into an eternal rest
  • (in fiestier mode) Fight [disease name here] successfully for X years but finally succumb
Today was an exception to the general DER (Death Euphemism Rule). Four people actually up and died, according to their obituaries. (For a much more entertaining short list of euphemisms with a lot more down-home flavor, see this page.)

Writing obituaries is an art, as observed by a writer for the Washington Post. There’s even a study about the obituary from which I learned that obituary publishing site Legacy.com is one of the 100 most visited on the Web. Who knew?

I read the obituaries every so often. Not just to find out whether I’m listed so I can get on with my day, as Benjamin Franklin once observed.

Sometimes I mean to scan the page quickly, but something catches my eye: someone dies quite young, or at an extremely advanced age, or has the same last name as someone I know, or has an especially appealing twinkle in the eye in whatever photo the survivors chose.

Sometimes I read every last one in a kind of silent homage to the lives they led, whether they were World War II veterans like my dad (still alive at 92), a woman who spent most of her life in Catholic orders, or a good ol’ boy who loved hunting, fishing and hanging out with his buddies (they may even name a favorite tavern where he’ll be missed, in this type).

Life companions, remarriages, children and grandchildren and stepchildren, work lives and military service—an entire life captured in a couple of hundred words.

Families pay for the obituaries I’m reading and presumably provide the information. I like it best when it feels like a truly well-rounded view of the person, not just the shiny outer shell. If I get a sense that the person loved to laugh, formed lasting friendships and left behind a family that will miss him or her, that tells me more about a life well lived than honors and awards.

What makes it harder right now is that I have a friend who is dying. When that obituary appears, it is one that will make people say, "Oh, so young!" and "I didn't even know she was sick."

I'm close enough to have visited her in these days of winding down, but so many people would be on a "short" list for phone calls that I may not know she has died until I read it in the paper.

That gives this section more weight every day, and I know that no matter how wonderfully it's written her obituary will not capture all her strength, grace and beauty. I don't think she would opt for the euphemism, but that's not my call.

As for me, I suppose that thanks to my time as an elected official I might rate an actual article, not a paid piece that my family has to come up with while they’re still grieving (I assume—you’d miss me, right?). But that would focus on the externals of public service, not on whether I was a decent mom to my kids and stepchildren, a friend you could rely on, a generally good person, kind, or a great cook J.

When I first started blogging I stumbled across a timeline site, Dipity. I started building my life chronology, although I also noted in a blog post that life isn’t just chronology.

It will do as well as anything for that official business of what/when/where, so can my obit (written many, many years from now, I hope) say a little more about the why and the who? And you can just say that I died. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
Mary Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.


  1. Comment received via Facebook:
    I have had the pleasure, the task, the agony of writing a whole family's obituaries - I am the last of my generation and we unfortunately took the zero population growth serioiusly. No kids to protect through careful language. I gave some suggestions to my executor about what to say about me. I want people to recognize that I am an actual human who has died. My lovely mother said, when you are dead you are dead. I hope that I live so long that no one reading this has reason to know. But I think it could say something like this..
    overly serious elderly artist interested in growing her own corn maze dies from too much aliterative language, asthma, and cat hair inhaltion in her home in Spokane while waiting for her ballot by mail and her recent order of books from the MOMA bookstore....

  2. Comment received via Facebook:
    Love your blog post, and similarly desire that no euphemism be used to note my death. I intend to write my own, but it's easy to put that off.

    It's interesting that both poems in the post reflect traditional western notions of death: Dylan Thomas - "though wise men at their end know dark is right," nonetheless wants us to fight against it as though it's a battle to be won; Mary Frye - though her sentiment is beautifully expressed, is essentially saying "I'm not really dead, I will live on some how".

  3. Comment received via Facebook:
    When I teach literature, I always make a big deal about the poem I hate the most is Do Not Go Gentle...why? because it has the narrator telling his dad how to die. as though it is HIS business. really, don't get me started on that poem :)

  4. OK, now this is from me:

    Okay, peeps, go find me some better poems! I actually really like Crossing the Bar too:

    Sunset and evening star,
    And one clear call for me!
    And may there be no moaning of the bar,
    When I put out to sea,
    But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
    When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

    By Alfred Lord Tennyson

  5. Rest in peace, Christianne. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/spokesman/obituary.aspx?page=notice&pid=138799081


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