(The material in this section is adapted from a presentation by RFA Director Todd Hunt on “How to Write Your Own Obituary -- and Why” as part of a series on “Documenting Yourself and Your Family.”)
When a professor dies, that person usually receives a full obituary in various periodicals, not just the paid “death notice” that an undertaker includes in the cost of a funeral and places in the local newspaper. Larger newspapers, such as The New York Times, assign obituaries to staff writers. The length of the “obit” is a matter for their news judgment. Local newspapers increasingly have a policy of announcing a price schedule explaining how many lines of obit material are granted free for the news story (with headline) that runs in addition to the paid death notice. They also quote the rate for additional material.
Department chairs and deans find themselves leafing through their files when the university's news service calls seeking information about a professor who has died. It would be helpful if they had a file with obituaries prepared by their faculty -- both retirees and those still on the payroll.
Similarly, spouses, children and executors are confronted with a multi-page form from the funeral home asking for information about the dearly departed -- place of birth, date of marriage, surviving relatives, names of the mother and father, year of retirement, etc., etc. If they're lucky, they can find a copy of the current curriculum vitae listing the academic and professional accomplishments.
In short, writing your obituary is too important to leave for someone else to try to do in a time of stress and grief. You should do it now. It will be easier for you than for anyone else, and it will assure that what you think were your greatest accomplishments are highlighted. Only you would know, for example, which of the academic journals you read are places where note should be taken of your passing.
You may even want to write different versions of your obituaries for different audiences and different publications, such as those in the list that follows:
Major publications, especially books that had an impact on the field.
Offices held in international, national, regional and state academic organizations.
Awards from academic and professional groups.
Fellowships and lectureships.
Patents or copyrights.
The New York Times
Highlights from the Professional/Academic version.
Honors and awards from your own university.
Major professional accomplishments.
Regional newspaper (Star-Ledger)
Lead with what you are best known for in New Jersey, whether academic or other. Include Rutgers in the lead paragraph.
Offices held in government or community organizations.
Awards from civic groups, fraternal groups, local professional groups.
Names of surviving spouse, children, brothers and sisters (and where they reside).
Local weekly or small daily newspaper
Everything provided to the regional newspaper.
Religious affiliation and membership, if practicing.
Memberships in fraternal organizations, community groups, etc.
Hobbies and pastimes.
Provide black-and-white head-and-shoulders photograph.
Do not give home address -- say: “of the Little Bay section of Centerville.”
Information about wake, viewing, funeral and interment.
You may also include “stories your families always told about you” as embellishment.
Click here to see a Sample Obituary