What’s the headline on your obituary?

Photo: Claudia Daut/Reuters via Daily Beast

Just after Fidel Castro died, The New York Times revealed that 16 different journalists had been working on his obituary . . . since 1959. (They keep these things on file, just in case a famous person dies.) It made me wonder about my own obituary and how it would have changed over the years. If you can stand it, you ought to ask yourself the same question.

I’m not that old; in fact, I’ve been around just a little longer than Castro’s obituary. And while Castro is a figure who changed the world, I’m way, way down on the D list. But it’s interesting to consider your life in retrospect every so often. How would a headline writer sum it up, assuming no more was to come?

My obituaries

In this fantasy scenario, writers at the Boston Globe go back and update my file every few years, because what they’ve written has become obsolete. So here are my obituary headlines, starting in 1982.

  • (1982) Math prodigy’s life cut short. Josh Bernoff, a National Science Fellow in the mathematics Ph.D. program at MIT, died this week in a tragic bicycle accident. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Penn State, Bernoff was known for his activity in local science fiction organizations and was engaged to the daughter of the renowned science fiction writer . . .
  • (1994) Startup executive blended math, writing. Josh Bernoff, a vice president at local technology publishing company Course Technology, passed away Friday after slipping on an icy sidewalk in Arlington, Massachusetts. Starting with Software Arts, the company that created the first spreadsheet VisiCalc, Bernoff had risen through a series of management and executive positions with local software companies that brought innovation to the way financial, educational, and engineering users perform calculations. He wrote software manuals, help files, and online tutorials; designed user interfaces and packaging; and managed support departments. He is survived by his second wife, Kimberley Harding, . . .
  • (2007) Analyst who predicted the future of television. Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research, died in a plane crash Monday. Since joining the prestigious market research and analysis firm in 1995, Bernoff had become the television industry’s most frequently quoted analyst on topics like HDTV and digital video recorders. In an appearance on “60 Minutes,” Mike Wallace called him “the authority on where TV is going.” With his wife, Kimberley Harding, he also homeschooled his two children . . .
  • (2014) Bestselling author focused on “idea development.” Josh Bernoff, the senior vice president of idea development at Forrester Research, died last week after falling from a stage while giving a speech. Bernoff was the coauthor, with Charlene Li, of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, a bestselling book that became the indispensable guide for businesses strategy around blogs and social media sites like Facebook. Bernoff was the coauthor or editor of four other business books and collaborated with other Forrester analysts on “idea development” — the process of refining and publicizing the company’s perspectives and predictions on a variety of topics . . .
  • (2017) Bullshit fighter afflicted practitioners of corporate doublespeak. Josh Bernoff, the author of Writing Without Bullshit, died early this year from complications after a heart attack brought on by the results of the presidential election. In addition to his book on business writing, Bernoff attracted a following with daily blog posts about bloated corporate writing on his site, withoutbullshit.com. His blog attracted over 2 million views in its first two years. He was also the CEO of a local non-profit dedicated to weight loss and wellness, married for 26 years with two children in college. At the time of his death, Bernoff was working on a sequel to the writing book, tentatively titled Thinking Without Bullshit. . . . 

What would obituary writers say about you?

You don’t need to imagine your gruesome death as I have. Remember, obituary writers continually update people’s obituaries while they are still alive. In the fantasy world where they’re writing your obituary, what will they be writing?

Are you happy with it?

And has it changed, or can they just use the same one they wrote ten years ago?

Unless your obituary needs rewriting every few years, you’re in a rut. Life throws challenges at you. Turn them into chances to reinvent yourself. And keep those obituary writers busy making revisions!

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  1. Cleverly self promotional and informative without bullshit. Hope to hear more about your recovery from recent cardiac distress.

  2. Wow, this was a shocking episode of forced self-introspection. Jesus, I didn’t expect this first thing in the morning.