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The Riehl World: My Do-it-yourself Obituary

By Richard Riehl

Early this morning, in a pause in our conversation, Karen turned to me and declared, “Today we are going to write our obituaries.”

“I feel fine,” I assured her, “But don’t you think you should call the body snatchers first?”

Five years ago, we joined BioGift Anatomical and Surgical Education Center, a firm in Portland, Oregon that accepts body donations for medical research. All expenses are covered, from transportation, to the return of cremated remains.

Here’s a sample of the medical research BioGift supports:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Osteoporosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Schizophrenia

Karen and I were inspired to do this upon the passing of a dear friend. In his final days, he told us he took comfort from being able to help others, while freeing his family from funeral expenses.

Upon signing up with BioGift, Karen and I were each issued an ID card, carrying the telephone number for someone to call for a pick up if neither of us is there. Last year, Karen’s card went missing in the packing of our belongings for the move to our new home in this 55+ retirement community. To my relief, her call today would be for a replacement card, not a pick up.

“But why write our obituaries today?” I asked my always-prepared love of my life.

“Well, I didn’t want you to have to do it for me. It will be too hard for you because you’ll be so sad.”

That made me feel a little guilty, since I hadn’t given a thought to her feelings if I’m the first to go. I agreed to write my obituary.

Where to begin? As a nonfiction writer, I did my research. I found a sample on the internet, providing this outline: death announcement, biographical information, list of survivors and predeceased family members, scheduled services, and memorials.

The death announcement had to include my middle name, as well as the places and dates of my birth and death, with a photo optional.

Our neighbor Ron is 102, plays the piano in our community dining hall at Sunday Champaign Brunches, attends the Chateau’s balance classes, and says his secret to a long life is to keep breathing. I figure my daily 24-Hour Fitness workouts, and following Ron’s advice, should keep me as healthy as he is. So, I’m listing my projected date with death as November 13, 2046.

As for the photo, I’ll choose one of the few that were taken when I had hair.

Karen is a novelist who doesn’t believe in outlines. Which explains the whimsy of her obit’s opening line: “Karen Truesdell Riehl has yet to die, but many of us are still hoping.”

My biographical information about education and jobs will be easy enough, as will the listing of my lifetime achievements. A pretty good athlete during my school years, I’ve discovered that when memory fails, the older I get, the better I was.

Things get a bit more complicated when it comes to listing my survivors. Today I’ll need to include Karen, my four children, and Karen’s four children, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren. By 2046 the list is likely to get a lot longer.

As for memorials, in recent years, my college alma mater has developed a special fondness for me. They send frequent reminders of the great education I had there and how I could help them stay great. Since I haven’t been a major contributor in this life, they’re hoping I’ll be more generous in the next.

As for funeral services, Karen says she’d prefer to have hers before she goes, so that she can hear some nice things said about her before she’s not around to hear them. That sounds good to me.

By noon we decided not to write our own obits, after all, just to look forward to receiving Karen’s BioGift replacement ID card and reaffirming our decisions to donate our bodies to medical science.