Paula Davis was 55 when she and her husband closed their auto-body repair business.
Davis looked for a job. Employers told her she was dead in the water – no college degree, no experience they could see, though Davis had acquired plenty in the auto-body business: bookkeeper, hirer and firer of employees, customer relations professional.
Then she heard Heritage Funeral Home needed a bookkeeper. She applied and got the job.
And for the past decade, Davis has enjoyed an amazing new life as a funeral director.
She is now on a mission to encourage people to write their own obituaries, long before they need them.
Summer is a great time to get started, Davis says. Families are gathering for reunions. Older members can fill in family-history blanks and provide colorful anecdotes about your early life.
You don’t have to call it an obituary, if the word sounds too morbid.
Davis calls it “your life story.” You can, too.
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On a recent Friday morning, Davis – dressed in a black business suit with a gold antique starburst pin – faced her audience. About two dozen older men and women sat in her obituary-writing class at Corbin Senior Center on Spokane’s North Side.
“The best time to write your own obituary is when you are not only alive but healthy,” she said. “You can have the last word.”
The women and men in the room remember when most newspapers employed obituary writers. A person’s life story was treated the same as a news story: just the facts, ma’am.
The obituaries were written at no charge to the family, though they could pay for an additional classified ad obit. In the past decade, most newspapers have switched to a classified-ad option only, which leaves the just-the-facts newsroom out of the process.
Classified obits cost money. For instance, a Spokesman-Review obit can range in price from about $150 to as much as $1,000, depending on length and how many days it runs.
On the plus side? You can say whatever you wish about yourself.
Families need obituaries to disseminate to other outlets, too, such as funeral home websites and college alumni magazines.
“Don’t put off writing your own life story because it seems too big to finish,” Davis told the class. “You don’t have to worry about finishing it. But you can get started.”
The class members belonged to a generation of folks reluctant to brag about themselves or include specific, but telling, personal details.
This autobiographical writing isn’t a problem for their children and grandchildren immersed in social media. On Facebook, for instance, people list their lunch items or share what happened on a first date.
Davis handed out several obituaries as examples of adding some social-media spice to an obit.
George “found great pleasure in teaching an untold number of people how to pick tree-ripened peaches.”
Lloyd had “some of the finest restored Model As and Ford V-8s, and the cleanest workshop where he could display them.”
James, who played football in the 1930s, “earned spending money from an ardent football fan who paid him $1 for each touchdown he made.”
Edna’s “approach to health defied logic but seemed to work for her. Maintaining that smoking protected her from germs was but one aspect.”
To get to the specific details, Davis says, write three sentences – or even just three words – that best describe you.
Davis, who has almost completed her own obituary, shared one of her sentences: “I never met a stranger.”
Others who know Davis describe her with this word: “Translator.”
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Louis Davenport of Davenport Hotel fame died July 28, 1951, God rest his soul.
Lovers of the hotel gathered recently at Riverside Memorial Park to pay their respects at Davenport’s grave.
As Davis waited for the guests, she said that some grieving family members arrive at her office, obituary notes scribbled on the back of envelopes.
“You spend days planning a birthday party or a vacation,” she said. “And then all of a sudden a death occurs and you have three or four hours to get this obituary written because we have to get it to the paper.
“If you have to start from square one, that is not enough time. It’s so tragic after it’s run to have someone call us and say, ‘We left Aunt Sally out, and we couldn’t spell Monique’s name.’
“Well, Aunt Sally is mad. Monique is upset. A death should be a celebration of someone’s life and not a time of (stress).”
After the walk to Davenport’s simple grave, the visitors sat down to Davenport coffee cake, baked by Davis, along with fresh fruit and tea and coffee poured from silver pots.
Tom McArthur, a communications consultant and Davenport Hotel historian, applauded Davis’ write-your-own- obit crusade.
“Everyone’s story has a beginning, middle and end. We all have the same end,” he said.
“Paula is a great translator. She makes sense of the language of death.”
Writing – in advance – the words you’ll leave in death can help you change your life now. In a roundabout way, this happened to Davis.
As she settled into her job at Heritage Funeral Home, she noticed that education is listed on a person’s death certificate. She didn’t want hers to read “some college.”
She returned to Eastern Washington University in 2003 and finished a degree in 2006 in interdisciplinary studies.
A fact that will be included in the obituary Davis has written – long before she needs it.