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'I read my own obituary'

Art historian Dan Cruickshank has confronted his own death by having his obituary written and handed to him. How did it feel?

Is it insane to read your own obituary? To some people this could seem like breaking a taboo, tempting fate or, at the very least, setting myself up for a painful fall.

Dan Cruickshank
Face to face with death

But the process explored an immensely complex question - do I want a memorial and, if so, what?

These days, obituaries act as a fleeting monument to the achievements of people others have deemed as notable in some way.

In the Middle Ages, tombs were occasionally made during the lifetime of their future occupants and so were intended to act as a tool in the preparation for death.

Contemplation of one's own tomb would be a powerful antidote to denial of death and to vaunting vanity and a reminder to repent and live each day as if it were your last in the certainty that you will be answerable in death for your actions in life.

I require no monument, for what I have done in life - my work - is my memorial in death. This response seems reasonable, rational and even humble - but perhaps is no such thing. I'm not sure, but there is the hint of the ego about it, the veiled assumption that one's work is of some wider interest and value.

The Art of Dying, co-produced by the Open University, is broadcast on BBC Four on Wednesday, 30 September at 2100 BST
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This assumption can be painful - if tested - as I found out for, of course, my sweeping reference to my work led to the next inevitable question. What exactly are the actions, the work, that I assume could serve as my monument? And so the die was cast.

An objective assessment of my life was required and so an obituary was ordered up. This is an ordeal that most people avoid by having the good sense to die first but in the weird world of television - a world that so often offers a mirror-image of reality - I was granted the rare privilege of being present at my own funeral, of in life seeing myself after death.

Entering Hell

I had no idea what would be written and as the day drew near for the revelation, for my meeting with Nick Serpell - the BBC's obituary-writer - a cloud of gloomy despair settled over me. In the Middle Ages it was only necessary to contemplate an image of one's corpse but I was now to have to sit and listen to a detached and no doubt horribly fair assessment of my life.

One definition of Hell is to see our lives through the eyes of others, of those we've slighted and hurt, to see the consequences of our actions, for good or for ill. It was a permutation of this Hell that I was now to enter.

BBC obituary writer Nick Serpell

Journalists who deal in obituaries can normally be certain of one thing. Whatever criticism they may receive for a particular piece of writing, it is highly unlikely to come from the deceased. It was, therefore, a unique experience to be writing Dan Cruickshank's obituary knowing that he would actually be reading it.

As the day of Dan's visit approached, I began to grow a little nervous. Despite my meticulous research, would he find mistakes or, even worse, would he take exception to my inclusion of a quote from a leading figure in the arts, criticising his presentational style?

In the event, Dan was even more nervous than I was and appeared somewhat overwhelmed when I handed him the finished piece. It was an interesting experience; but one I am not likely to repeat in a hurry

I was, in a sense, to not only contemplate my own death but also, perhaps, to experience the pain of death, or at least the death of my ego. What on earth would happen?

This was a lonely moment indeed. We all have our secrets, those moments that we'd rather not relive. We all have our fantasies and self-delusions which, absurd as they might be, we'd rather not have stripped away.

Feeling like a felon on my way to execution, I made my way to the office in BBC Television Centre that is the realm of the obituarist. I entered and, almost to my amazement, found it was an office like any other - not the den of Mephistopheles, of a being weighing my soul in the balance to see if it was found wanting.

But through the haze of my anguish I perceived dimly what I took to be a skeleton hanging in one corner. If nothing else, I thought, this chap has a sense of humour - perhaps even compassion. And then our eyes met - and I saw this was no predatory being gloating over my demise. Poor chap - he looked just as worried, anxious and embarrassed as I felt.

The obituary was duly read - there were emotional ups and downs - I think I'm still taking it in but, on balance, I can say it pretty successfully did the job of pricking my bubble of vanity.

Is that a good thing? Probably, and there can be no doubt that such an experience does make you confront your own mortality, wakes you up from the dreamy world of death-denial - indeed acts as a memento mori, a reminder to strive in life and behave well before death is imminent.


So there is a positive side I suppose to reading your own obituary. To hear yourself referred to in the past tense has a shocking finality but - of course - I'm not dead.

Dan Cruickshank
Cruickshank says it was like attending his own funeral

I've had a warning shot fired across my bow. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, I've been granted a glimpse of the future and have the possibility to use this knowledge to change and to redeem myself.

Most people who have survived what's known popularly - if not medically - as a "near-death experience" say they feel a strange euphoria, renewed love of life and sense of magnanimity. I feel something similar, I have survived my obituary and am reborn.

But reading your own obituary is not something I would recommend. It's too brutal and I'll never quite forget the unexpected physical shock of holding in my hand a sheet of paper with my name and photograph upon it along with a very authoritative-looking BBC logo and in large letters the word "Obituary".

The event now reverberates, in a quiet but constant manner, through my life. I often think of it.

This obituary will, in some way, appear in whatever real obituary I might have. This escapade has taken on a reality of its own and become part of the fabric of my life and, like a tomb made before its time or a premature death mask, acts as a very powerful reminder of mortality.

But can I, like Scrooge, change the "record" of my life enshrined in this obituary? Is there time for me to find out?

Below is a selection of your comments.

A fascinating and humbling idea. Although I feel that you must take comfort in the fact that in order for you to have an obituary written, you must have accomplished something notable in your life. In such cases an obituary should be seen as a compliment and proof of a life well lived, rather than something shocking and scary.
Nicholas Williams, Sutton

I suppose having a terminal illness makes you contemplate your mortality more than any obituary. An aunt of mine, famous for getting her own way, didn't let her terminal cancer stop her from preparing her final fanfare. She organised everything for her funeral in advance - she planned the funeral programmes (date of birth omitted), the music and even wrote her own obituary. I doubt very much it pricked her vanity bubble (she denied to all but her closest relatives that she suffered from cancer and wore wigs to hide it), but if it helps one to accept death, especially a painful one, why not?
Karina, Cologne, Germany

A powerful thought indeed, enough to inspire the Nobel Prize. When Alfred Nobel's brother died, a French newspaper mistakenly wrote an obituary for Alfred, calling his the "merchant of death" for his invention and production of dynamite. Nobel was shocked by his perceived legacy that he changed his will, and in turn creating the Nobel Prize.
Howie Fine, London

A chilling exercise indeed. But perhaps it's better to put the past behind as unchangeable. "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" sounds like a horrible greeting card cliche but it's also true every day. Better to think of the good we can in the (usually unknown) time remaining.
Terence, Sydney, Australia

As part of a journalism course I had to write obituaries of two famous people as practice. I chose Prince Phillip and Jeremy Paxman - I have no grievance with either but thought they would be interesting to write. It was an odd experience overall; their lives bookended in the past tense. I can see why Dan did not enjoy the experience.
Gary, London, England

At the age of 22, my own legacy isn't something I have taken much time to contemplate. Noting the impact that reading one's own obituary appears to have had on Mr Cruickshank, perhaps it is worth devoting some time to assess how you may be remembered, and indeed, if you want to be remembered in any particular way. I have a sneaking suspicion that most people of my age will laugh at this sort of article, believing that it is something that you should concern yourself with once middle-age lands at your feet. However, as Mr Cruickshank points out, death is imminent. The only real question is how imminent death is to oneself, and whether you have created the legacy that you desire.
Darren Vidler, Dumfries, Scotland

Get the fear of dying out of the way first, then you can really get on with living.
Jill Fox, Chichester

"I require no monument, for what I have done in life - my work - is my memorial in death." May I suggest the true monument of anyone who can write a sentence like that without irony is their towering pomposity?
Alex Clarke, Brora, Highlands

What a fantastic article. Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People suggests that imagining one's own funeral is a good way of evaluating one's life. Who would attend? What would they say? And how would you be remembered? Slightly morbid but extremely sobering.
Rob Ayres, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Contemplating one's death is not morbid: it offers focus for life. It's basic to Christian spirituality. Standing in one's imagination at the end of one's life and looking back offers clarity of mind as to what really matters - what one is living for, what is essential and what is dispensable. It helps one to know oneself - essential in discerning vocation. Perhaps an unsettling process, but being at peace with God facilitates such a perspective. And, after all, what ultimately matters is God's judgement of me - not whether or not I get an obituary and what it might or might not say.
Paul Burr, Norwich

Most of us will not get an obituary, or a even a tombstone. Even the apparently material record of our existence - like photographs, correspondence, or what we created at work - will be digital and mostly wiped soon after we die. No chance of someone unearthing such things 100 years later. All that will remain will be in the memory of people who knew us. As the canticle says: "...who are perished as though they had never been".
ChrisJK, UK

What self-indulgence! And what a disillusioned world he lives in. Only on the BBC, folks. Real life - or death for that matter - is nothing like this. Pure theatre.
Mike, Stevenage

Wow, lucky man to be able to change what people say about you after your death. I don't expect anything in print after mine and so have no choice. I guess now is the time to start thinking about it and hopefully folk will talk about the good things. My stepfather Bob was a unique character and people loved him, I'd like to know what he would have thought of his obituary and how his memories have enriched the lives of the people of Bristol. Which it has.
Phil, Warrington UK

Dan Cruickshank is one of this country's finest TV documentary presenters and that legacy can never be taken away.
Chris, York, UK

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