Last Words

It was the good Dr. Samuel Johnson who famously observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Christopher Hitchens tried to do Dr. Johnson one better by recounting in his memoir, Hitch-22, how he once came upon a photograph of himself in which he is mistakenly identified as “the late Christopher Hitchens.”  The effect of seeing such words was much the same, he writes:  It served as a useful reminder that one’s time on Earth is finite.

Given this cheerful news about the fact of our mortality, coupled with our unique status, as a species, of knowing of our eventual demise in advance, and then adding on our natural solipsism and desire to control our so-called destiny, it comes as little surprise to read about a growing trend known as the “self-obituary.”

As profiled in the New York Times, an increasing number of folks have taken it upon themselves to pen the narrative of their own lives to date, to be published upon their death.  The appeal is two-fold:  First, it relieves one’s survivors of the responsibility of doing so later on; and second, it offers the consolation that one’s life story will be (as far as the person is concerned) thorough and accurate.

For comic relief, the article’s author, Alex Beam, includes examples of various funny people’s self-obituaries that include future life accomplishments and, in some cases, the cause of death.

The central question on this subject might be phrased as follows:  If you were to expire on this very day—you looked the wrong way and stepped into the path of an oncoming bus, for instance—what would your obituary say tomorrow?  Would you welcome its contents or feel somehow embarrassed or ashamed?  Would it even make a difference if you wrote it yourself?

Elsewhere on the New York Times website, we find a recurring feature called “Last Word.”  Begun in 2007, the initiative is a compilation of video interviews with distinguished public figures, recorded when they are alive (naturally) but not broadcast until they are dead.

It is an open secret that news outlets prepare obituaries of certain famous people before they actually die, but “Last Word” pushes the boundaries even further by personalizing it, allowing the subject himself, rather than some objective reporter, to have his say.

Here, too, we see the prospect of a new form of self-memorializing becoming ubiquitous.  In 2006, a patent was issued for a device called a “Video-Enhanced Grave Marker,” which is effectively a talking tombstone, operated by remote control, offering a message recorded by the person who now resides beneath it.

Of course, any compulsion to exert editorial control over ourselves in death is merely an extension of the compulsion to exert editorial control over ourselves in life.

For instance, I am the product of a union that began in the personals section of the Boston Phoenix, in which one of my parents-to-be sparked the interest of the other by means of a written self-appraisal.  While the bulk of this kind of activity has since moved online, the nature of the practice itself is the same today.

(I am occasionally tempted to post an ad on Match or eHarmony in which I portray myself in the most unflattering possible light, just to see what kinds of responses I get.)

So long as the trend of telling our own stories is expanding and inevitable, we might as well examine whether it is good for us.

Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, which is essentially a two-hour obituary of its subject, Charles Foster Kane, makes the implicit point that one’s ultimate legacy exists only in the memories of other people, be they friends, family members or complete strangers.  You can sex up your life story from here to next Tuesday, but you cannot completely escape the judgment of the bits of humanity you do not personally control.

The good news is that, until the curtain falls, we do exert reasonable control over our own behavior.  Living well is the best revenge, as George Herbert so eloquently intoned, and it is also the surest way to yield a glowing death notice, no matter who its author might be.

So live well.  You may find yourself in the gallows but a fortnight from now.

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