At this work­shop, you learn to write your own obit­u­ary

Orlando Sentinel - - EXTRA FAMILY & LIFE - By Liz Mayes

On a Mon­day evening in Septem­ber, seven peo­ple gather at the Rhi­zome, a house that has been con­verted into a com­mu­nity arts space in the District of Columbia. They range in age from late 20s to early 70s, and come from an ar­ray of pro­fes­sions. They’re all here for an un­usual writ­ing ex­er­cise: one where peo­ple — typ­i­cally of the healthy, nondy­ing va­ri­ety — ham­mer out the text for their own obit­u­ar­ies.

The group’s fa­cil­i­ta­tor is Sarah Farr, 43, a trained death doula. In the spring of 2017, she formed Death Pos­i­tive DC and be­gan host­ing reg­u­lar events: “death cafes,” where peo­ple sit around and chat about death, of­ten over cake; and obit­u­ary writ­ing work­shops like this one. (Death cafes are free or do­na­tion based; obit­u­ary writ­ing work­shops cost $10.)

Farr opens the work­shop by trac­ing the his­tory of obit­u­ar­ies in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism and out­lin­ing their shift­ing cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance through major events such as the AIDS cri­sis and 9/11. She brings up the role that race and gen­der have played in the obit­u­ary sec­tions of news­pa­pers. She also en­cour­ages the group to think about how the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia and me­mo­rial web­sites have changed the way deaths are re­ported. She shares ex­am­ples of funny, vi­ral obit­u­ar­ies and dives into the ethics of adult chil­dren pub­lish­ing un­flat­ter­ing obit­u­ar­ies of their par­ents.

Then, ed­u­cated about obit­u­ar­ies and ready to craft their own, the par­tic­i­pants are set loose. They wan­der to dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the house or out­side to the porch, and they be­gin to write.

Obit­u­ary writ­ing work­shops are part of an ex­pand­ing suite of ac­tiv­i­ties that fall un­der the um­brella of the “death pos­i­tive move­ment.” Based on the be­lief that cul­tural avoid­ance of dis­cussing death is harm­ful, the move­ment en­cour­ages peo­ple to speak more openly about dy­ing. It had been rum­bling for sev­eral years be­fore it gained a name and so­lid­i­fied into an of­fi­cial move­ment. In 2011, a man named Jon Un­der­wood — who would later die at age 44 — held his first death cafe in his base­ment in Lon­don. He en­vi­sioned the meet­ings as a refuge from what he saw as a patho­log­i­cally death-averse cul­ture.

Af­ter Un­der­wood and his mother pub­lished an on­line guide for hold­ing death cafes, the idea quickly spread and was en­veloped into the grow­ing death pos­i­tive move­ment. Since then, ac­cord­ing to Death Cafe’s of­fi­cial website, there have been more than 9,700 death cafes held in 66 coun­tries. Any­one can host their own death cafe, as long as they abide by the guide­lines set out by Un­der­wood.

Farr has seen at­ten­dance at her death cafes rise markedly over the years. Her first death cafe, held in Novem­ber 2016, saw about 15 at­ten­dees. Re­cently, her meet­ings have topped out at 50.

Af­ter about 20 min­utes, Farr calls the group back to­gether. Na­dia Raikin, 60, vol­un­teers to share what she’s writ­ten. As she reads, her dry, cool hu­mor is pal­pa­ble: “Well. I am dead now. But at least I lived for a while, which is bet­ter than noth­ing.” She pauses to smile as a chuckle goes through the room. “But I’m happy I got to ex­pe­ri­ence life, and that my mom, upon bless­ings of my grandma, de­cided to keep me. I was born out of a force of na­ture. I guess I died when na­ture or God called me back.”

An older man named Chris is next. “Chris lost his life in a car ac­ci­dent on Nov. 1, 2020, nine days be­fore his birth­day. He was 75,” he says as the oth­ers lis­ten. Tall with gray hair, he speaks in a gen­tle, straight­for­ward voice, sketch­ing out the story of life, mar­riage and work.

“He was a hu­mor­ous, easy­go­ing man who drank a little too much but never caused any trou­ble when the drink got the bet­ter of him. He al­ways felt in­tense em­pa­thy with the un­der­dogs of the world, which he felt a mem­ber of. But he was happy and com­fort­able with this iden­tity.” He stops read­ing abruptly and looks up from the page. “Any­way, blah, blah, blah. What did you all think?”

“I loved it,” Farr says. “I think it could be a great jump­ing-off place for a mem­oir.”

Af­ter a few more peo­ple share their obits, the group breaks for an­other round of writ­ing. For the mid­dleaged and younger par­tic­i­pants, it can be a for­ward­look­ing ex­er­cise. Jill Eckart, 40, says, “I took it as an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate what might be pos­si­ble in the next half of my life. I have about hope­fully 45 to 50 more years left. With the end in mind, what do I want that space to look like?”


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