The Importance of Recording Family Life Histories

I recently wrote my mother’s obituary.

No, she is not dead, or terminally ill. She is very healthy and living an exciting life. However, she is in her seventies now, and she is not going to be with me forever. For the last couple of years, I have been hesitant about even bringing up the topic of death and funeral plans with her, as she seemed not to want to talk about it.

However, her sister passed away last September after living with Alzheimer’s for the past ten years. It was painful to watch her wither away in the last 18 months to the point of her having no memory and being in constant physical pain. What made it worse is that I realized that I wished I talked to my aunt more about her life when she was still healthy, namely learning her many great Jamaican recipes. She used to cook for me when I was a kid, and I felt like some of those great memories died with her.

After her death, I think my mother began to think more about her mortality, as her sister was only a couple years older than her. After our Thanksgiving dinner, my mom handed me a two-page biography of her life. She asked me to rewrite as an obituary. This obituary opened up an opportunity for me to not only talk to her more about her life but to also to discuss her funeral plans. I also did a one-hour, wide-ranging audio interview with both of my parents about their lives that I can keep and share with my kids in the future.

I don’t have any problems with discussing death because I used to write obituaries for my local newspaper and I recognize that death is a part of life. I can tell you from my experience that many of the survivors I interviewed for those newspaper obituaries wished they had known more about their deceased loved ones when they were alive. Survivors would tell me “I wished I had asked them this” or “I wished I had known that” about their loved one. But it hit home for me when my aunt died that I need to be more proactive about my family’s memories.

Unfortunately, because we don’t openly discuss death in American society as much as we should, there are a lot of memories that disappear with the deceased. We don’t even discuss funeral plans until someone is terminally ill or already dead.

I think it is an excellent idea to write or record an obituary, or rather a life history. This process is especially important if your loved ones are immigrants, which adds another layer to your family history. My family came to America from Jamaica in the 1970s. Both my parents have memories of life on the island both before and after British colonialism, the Cold War inspired political violence under Michael Manley and what it was like coming to America.

We all have smartphones that we can use today to record their life histories easily. Furthermore, we should be talking to our elders more often anyway. Creating my mother’s life history has brought me closer to her, as I can better recognize and cherish her life, and it makes it easier to deal with her eventual mortality. I am even relearning some of my favorite recipes from her!

It is always a good idea to celebrate life while loved ones are still here before it is too late.