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Helping Fellow Retirees Write their Own Obits
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Helping Fellow Retirees Write their Own Obits

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Helping Fellow Retirees Write their Own Obits

Helping Fellow Retirees Write their Own Obits
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An active senior citizen at Leisure World, a city-sized retirement community in Orange County, Calif., has volunteered to help his fellow residents write their own obituaries. Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC reports that it's a difficult, touchy and often humorous exercise.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I think that writers on newspapers know that among the best beats to get is the obituary desk, because that's where the good stories are. But so many people go--all of them really--the papers can't keep up. At the Leisure World retirement community in Orange County, California, Dean Davisson helps people write their own obits. From member station KPCC, Rob Schmitz has a profile of the man who helps others have the last word.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

Most folks probably don't think too much about what will be written about them in their obituaries after they die, but Dean Davisson does. In fact, he's already written his.

Mr. DEAN DAVISSON: Dean Davisson died on--blank--of natural causes in Laguna Woods, California.

SCHMITZ: The 83-year-old's assessment of his life fits neatly on four double-spaced pages. Marriages, children, military service; it's all there.

Mr. DAVISSON: He married Beverly Asyre(ph) in 1948. They had three children.

SCHMITZ: Davisson had so much fun writing his own obituary that earlier this year he decided he'd offer the service free of charge to the over 18,000 residents at Leisure World. So far, he's received over a hundred responses, all in the form of a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Davisson, in return, sends back a questionnaire, and that's usually when people start to freeze up. He thinks he knows the reason.

Mr. DAVISSON: Don't want to face the future. A dear friend of ours--when I first started this, I said, `Here's my newest project. Would you like to have it? It's write your own obituary.' She says, `Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I don't want that.' So many people don't want to talk about the end of their life.

SCHMITZ: Still, since he began the project in March, Davisson has helped over 30 people brave enough to face their own mortality to write their own obits. He figures he's qualified for the job. For 18 years, Davisson was a public relations executive. In many ways, he says, the PR mantra of keeping a positive spin on everything fits well with obituary writing, sometimes a bit too well. In some cases, he says, grudges against family members or ex-spouses are fully intended to be taken to the grave.

Mr. DAVISSON: One case, a lady had several children. They were identified. And than the grandchildren were identified. I said, `But what happened to the father? Is he still living?' `Oh, no, he's still living, but I don't want to talk about him.' And I said, `But that makes your children bastards.' `Oh, yeah, they do need a father.'

SCHMITZ: But for the most part, Davisson says, he stays out of what is written and guides people in how an obituary is written.

Mr. DAVISSON: Good morning.

Ms. CECIL BETTS: Come on in.

Mr. DAVISSON: Hi.

Ms. BETTS: Can I get you a cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade or anything?

Mr. DAVISSON: Lemonade would be tasty, ma'am.

Ms. BETTS: OK.

SCHMITZ: On this particular day, Davisson makes a house call to Cecil Betts. She says she wants to make sure her obituary is already written when she dies, both to relieve the burden on her children and to have control over what is said.

Ms. BETTS: I figure I'm almost 88 years old. I'm not going to be around for too many years more. So I might not remember what I wanted to say if I wait much longer.

SCHMITZ: Sitting across a coffee table from each other, Davisson reads Betts' obituary to her.

Mr. DAVISSON: Cecil Betts, noted author and storyteller, age--blank--died in Laguna Woods of natural causes.

SCHMITZ: Betts, who's legally blind, listens to her life's achievements and, at points, stops Davisson to correct him.

Mr. DAVISSON: She was the seventh child of nine siblings, all now deceased.

Ms. BETTS: Seventh daughter.

Mr. DAVISSON: Seventh daughter. OK.

SCHMITZ: After Davisson makes the corrections, he'll go home and finish the final draft. He says he usually likes to keep the obituaries he writes short, simple and to the point, a style he says comes from his Kansas farm upbringing. But he admits it's been difficult keeping his own obituary short. In fact, it takes him a full eight minutes to reach the end of it.

Mr. DAVISSON: Lieutenant Commander Davisson, USNR, retired, will be cremated and the ashes placed in the crypt beside his wife, Georgette's, in the...

SCHMITZ: Davisson anticipates as more folks hear about his service, he'll soon be swamped with requests. After all, he says, the death rate at Leisure World averages about one person per day. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Orange County, California.

Mr. DAVISSON: Dean asks that contributions may be made to your favorite charity.

CHADWICK: Happy endings to all. And more just ahead on DAY TO DAY.

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