Nova Scotia

Famous last words. The 'quirky things' that make for a memorable obituary

CBC's Maritime Noon held a call-in show about obituaries on Thursday. Host Bob Murphy interviewed Tamara Vukusic, an avid obituary reader who is also in the process of writing a book about obituaries.

Tamara Vukusic is writing a book on obituaries and shares some that stood out

CBC's Maritime Noon held a call-in show about obituaries on Thursday. Host Bob Murphy interviewed Tamara Vukusic, an avid obituary reader who is also in the process of writing a book about obituaries. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

When Gloria Churchill's son, Shannon, died in 2018, she had no idea how far his self-written obituary would travel.

"The obituary went viral, over 500,000 hits online," Churchill told CBC's Maritime Noon radio show on Thursday. "He hated Facebook, so I'm sure he's chuckling somewhere.

"Also it went to every news network across the country."

Churchill was one of several people who phoned in to Maritime Noon's call-in show on Thursday.

The topic was obituaries. Host Bob Murphy interviewed Tamara Vukusic, an avid obituary reader who has also written about them.

The reason why Churchill thinks her son's obituary went viral is because his personality shone through.

'Lots of humour'

"He said his only regret was that he didn't get to see how Coronation Street ended. There are many things in there, lots of humour," Churchill said.

The cast of Coronation Street ended up finding out about her son and mailing the family an autographed photo.

Others who read the obituary, she said, wrote to tell her the obit inspired them to take a trip or check something off their bucket list. She said the response has meant a lot.

"He didn't really do anything extraordinary with his life other than be himself," Churchill said.

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Vukusic, writing a  book on obituaries, has been reading them for 20 years. She said she started after working at a veterans hospital in Ottawa.

She said she enjoyed getting to know the patients and would find out about memorial services by reading the obituaries.

"While doing so I was really struck by how much there was that I didn't know about them, how many stories they had to share, how many life experiences," Vukusic said. "And that is when I decided I would start asking more questions."

Signs of a good obit

A sign of a good obituary, Vukusic said, is feeling a sense of loss for having never known the person.

She said obituaries that don't gloss over imperfections are quite memorable, too.

"So of course we want to capture all the things that were wonderful about a person, but it's those little quirky things that make us human," she said.

Vukusic read a portion of an obituary for a woman named Doris Mary Sturdee as an example.

"She was a constant source of giddy spontaneous humour to all who knew her, and yet she could not tell a conventional joke to save her life. That was fine because her frequent failed attempts at joke-telling were vastly funnier than the jokes she was trying to tell."

It doesn't need to be long

A short story or a short sentence that encapsulates the person is another way to make an obituary memorable, Vukusic said.

"So much like people will look for a good bottle of wine that's $15 or less, I love finding sentences that capture a person in 15 words or less," she said.

An example of a short sentence that summed up a person was for Holly Denny Chercover, which simply read: "She was the frog whisperer."

Obituaries don't have to be too long, Vukusic said. A short obituary she enjoyed was for Ora Orbach.

"Born in Israel in 1940, died in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2019 of cancer, borne stoically. Diagnosed many years ago, declined medical intervention. Petite, a skeptic and news junkie, loved Oded, the arts, music, good proportions in everything, minimalism, aesthetics and knitting."

Paul Crawford, a 78-year-old man who called into Maritime Noon on Thursday, is also an avid obituary reader. He said he wrote his own obituary 25 years ago and checks back on it every so often to make updates.

"I've given copies to my children and that way I like to see it," Crawford said.

With files from Maritime Noon