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What Will Your Obituary Say?
Every one of us has done things that we knew were foolish at the time, or that we regretted long afterward. Sometimes, when the damage is done, we can do little to make repairs or atone. But this morning at breakfast, when my husband read the obituary of Carolyn Bryant Donham, I realized that her life and death raised many intriguing thoughts for me—about her, and my own life.
Who was Carolyn Bryant Donham?
Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making inappropriate advances toward her in 1955, has died at the age of 88 in Louisiana, according to a coroner’s report.
Nearly 68 years after Till was kidnapped, brutally tortured, murdered and then dumped into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, the case continues to resonate with audiences around the world because it represents an egregious example of justice denied.
Although some facts about the incident and trial are not completely clear, we do know at least two things for certain: (1) the beating and murder were instigated by charges made by Donham against Till, charges that were likely exaggerated, and (2) the two men who were charged with the crime were found not guilty after a 67-minute deliberation by an all-white, all-male jury. It appears that Till, who had let out a wolf whistle after seeing Donham (Bryant, at the time) at a grocery store, was accused by Donham of making “inappropriate advances,” although the details are unclear. And years after the trial, members of the jury “wouldn’t convict a white man of crimes against a Black child.”
* * * *
But the details of Donham’s story were not all that intrigued me. Of course, those times, filled with racial animosity, were very different from today. I began to wonder, however, about her motivation to exaggerate Till’s action (which we’ll never know); but more than that, I wondered how she felt about the lie she had told that led to Till’s death, that of a 14-year-old child. Did she realize that her accusation could lead to such deadly consequences? Did she feel a certain satisfaction about Till’s death, at least initially? Did she understand that she was an indirect participant in the crime? Did she eventually regret her own actions?
These questions led me to reflect on my own life. Have I done anything I might be remembered for that would cause me deep regret? Although I have not been complicit in a person’s death, have I acted in ways that caused deep pain to another person? I realize that spending time on regrets is likely wasted energy, particularly if I have tried to make amends. But I did recognize that I could focus on other activities in my life that could have the opposite effect that Carolyn Bryant Denham’s decision had. I could ask myself a different set of questions:
- Do I bring joy into the life of others?
- Am I mindful of the impact of my words when talking with others?
- Am I attentive to those people around me, exchanging a smile or greeting to acknowledge the moments I am spending with them?
- Do I do things that are helpful and appreciated?
- Do I express to others my appreciation of them?
- Do I make a difference to those whose lives I touch?
I am asking these questions of myself for a number of reasons, first, because I don’t want to be remembered for doing hateful or destructive things. I don’t want in any way for my obituary to read like Carolyn Bryant Donham’s. I want to make my focus in life to be a person who comforts others and who is a loving wife and friend, who demonstrates both wisdom and kindness.
I want my obituary to read that I made a difference.
How would you like to be remembered?Published in Culture
We should all focus on such things.
All of the things you list are things worth pursuing. But in the end we don’t write our published obituary, only the one read by G-d. We are lucky if the published version is written by someone who cares about and values us. Some of us may be luckier if the author doesn’t really know us at all.
Now that certainly would not describe you, Rodin! Seriously, it’s interesting to reflect on an obituary. We are “telling the world,” those who know us or don’t who we are, often through our deeds. And I think, to me, that an obituary says(which may or may not be “true”) that there are people in the world who made a contribution; that made sacrifices or beat the odds. I really enjoy the obituaries in the WSJ on Saturday; they are usually remarkable people in many ways, and I find their stories inspiring.
Not much. Will be buried in a military cemetery with a plain military head stone.
It’s not the quantity but the quality that matters.
I’m not sure what sort of legacy Carolyn Bryant will leave, if any, but we can know for certain the legacy left by Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother. Her remarks are uplifting and well worth five minutes.
I am working on writing my own obit so my kids or husband don’t have to. I have things to say and I know what has been important to me in my life. I want to be able to say goodbye in my own way.
And the company you rest with.
Thank you. What an awesome woman.
That’s a very moving plan, Juliana. Clearly from a woman who is in touch with her mortality.
I would like to be remembered as someone who was not overly concerned about how he would be remembered. I am trying to not allow the prospect of an obit influence the manner in which I lead my life.
I like that! And I might point out that the way you lead your life might inspire someone else. And I sense that prospect might remind you of your goals, or at least reflect on whether your goals have changed.
Don’t know about my obituary, but I know my epitaph…
I’ve encouraged my family members to carve it into granite:
“She finally got to sleep in.”
If they won’t do that, then I hope they remember my Granpa’s dictate “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I love it, Carol Joy! Works for me!
I love, love, love this post. First, I am an obituary reader. It’s the only reason why I keep delivery of my local paper. They usually have nice obits. Second, I have often wondered what my obit will say, and yes those questions are questions to ponder. Third, I wrote a very similar post here on Ricochet in 2015. I did not realize it was that long ago until I just looked it up. Now the difference between this and my post is that I had a very worthy deceased who’s life was a model to follow, unlike this Carolyn of questionable moral virtue. Read my post, “A Gentleman of the Old School,” if you wish to compare. It’s a quick read.
To answer the question in the title, it will depend on who writes it. If my mother writes it, my obituary will preposterously exaggerate what a wonderful person I was. If my wife writes it, people will be left thinking, “Well, no great loss then.”
When I was 8 years old, I got into a fight with a girl who was 2-3 years older than me. She was bigger than me, and she was picking on me. I’m going by vague memory so many years ago, but I had her over a swing, and I was pressing on her neck and head, and then I let her go. I remember there were other kids there watching. Silently. Maybe that’s part of why I let go.
We went our separate ways. A day or two later, my parents talked to me, and told me that she had been to the doctor and I had come close to breaking her neck. I was unrepentant and my parents dropped it. I wasn’t punished.
Life goes on, and I revisited that memory as an adult, and wondered, what if the worst had happened, and I had paralyzed her? I would have lived with that for the rest of my life. And of course she would have lived with much worse. I talked to my mom about it, and about her those many decades later, and Mom said that she was a horrible child, a compulsive liar, and just plain mean. I guess that’s why I wasn’t punished.
I’m glad that the worst didn’t happen that day. But it shows how life can lead you into some very dark avenues, even at 8 years old.
Carolyn Bryant Donham probably exaggerated what Emmet Till did in part out of fear and social pressure. The Wikipedia article says that she didn’t tell her husband about the encounter because she feared what he would do to Till. She didn’t want what happened to him to happen. But she has also said that she’s a victim to, a victim of circumstance. I don’t buy it.
Whatever her motivations for what she did, she was tested and failed, and she lived with it for sixty years.
I have not been tested in such a way. I’ve hurt people from time to time, their feelings that is — I’ve done some mean things I regret. But I’ve not ruined anyone’s life, or gotten anyone killed.
I’m thankful for that.
I demand the right to correct any misinformation in mine.
“See…I told you I was sick.”
“Well, that was a surprise.”
Work in progress. So many things to learn–so little time.
Not exactly obituary instructions, but it’s the spirit rather than the letter I’m going with here:
Auntie Pat, who died in December at the age of 99, wanted to make very sure that her funeral was held according to her wishes, so she left instructions with my sister, who didn’t read them until the sad day came. Pat said she’d like a memorial service at St. George’s Church, Edgbaston (where my dad’s family were all parishioners in their youth, and where Pat attended for decades until she was no longer able). She made it clear that it didn’t matter what whether or not the vicar was a stranger to the family, as what he said didn’t matter much beyond the need to cover the formalities in the Book of Common Prayer (with a parenthetical note that all references should be to the traditional versions of the BCP and the KJV, “none of this modern stuff”–shades of my Dad’s instructions that he was not to be buried by a female vicar), but that she hoped that family members would engage in “suitable chit-chat” of her “life and doings.” Also, that some of her former pupils (she spent almost four decades as the beloved “Miss Chips” to generations of small girl-children, as their first, and often most-fondly remembered teacher) might “give an account of how they managed to survive for a year or two in my form [class].”
The vicar found the whole thing most amusing, realized he’d been sidelined in favor of those who really knew and loved Pat, and was an incredibly good sport about the whole thing.
That’s how I’d like to be remembered too. By those who cared about and loved me. Whatever they’d like to say, and however they’d like to remember me, is golden.
It’s nice to think about Auntie Pat, even when she’s not with us anymore. Even though I only knew her through your writing, I miss her.
Mike was born, he lived, he died.
Good to see he’s still alive for the moment, though.
I guess I hope it would say more. I’m trying to think about how I would want the obituary of a dear friend to read, for example: kind words, a few sentences that allow me celebrate who that person was and recall what he or she meant to me. The moment passes, but the overall memories would linger.
I’m going for “Beloved Husband and Father” or the like. Anything after that is icing on the cake.
“Failed a final con save. May he roll in peace.”