By MIKE LABELLA Eagle Tribune
HAVERHILL, Mass. (AP)—Like the pied piper, longtime Haverhill Gazette journalist Tom Vartabedian was hoping his class on writing your own obituary would gain a local following and that his students would become “ambassadors” for obituary writing.
He had no idea his small class at the Citizens Center would gain the attention of the Wall Street Journal.
James Hagerty, an obituary writer for the Wall Street Journal’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office, learned that when it comes to confronting one’s own death, local seniors who are learning to write their own obituaries with help from Vartabedian are breathing a sigh of relief that the task won’t be left to others.
They could not wait to share tributes to their lives with Hagerty, who recently visited the senior center along with a videographer. Hagerty said he came to Haverhill to do a story on the class after reading an Eagle-Tribune news article that appeared in an online news service he subscribes to.
“A lot of people have an aversion to writing,” Hagerty said about writing your own obituary. “It takes guts to put it on paper and let other people read it.”
Vartabedian recently completed his free three-session class at the Citizens Center and at the request of Hagerty, called his students back for an encore session. Many of his students came prepared with what they’d written and he critiqued their work.
“I couldn’t say no,” Vartabedian said. “I wanted to be part of Haverhill being showcased by one of the nation’s leading publications.”
He said the idea to teach the class arose out of his unexpected confrontation with gastro-intestinal cancer that was diagnosed in February.
While dealing with his own illness, Vartabedian decided to help others put into words what they cherished about their own lives. He tells his students not to leave it up to a loved one but to write about their lives while they are still in good health.
Sixteen people showed up for his encore class, which in- cluded many people who were not able to attend all three previous sessions and those who had completed their obituaries but wanted Vartabedian to critique them. Hagerty listened keenly to Vartabedian as he read one tribute after another, as his student writers listened proudly to their words.
Ralph Wightman, 87, told the class that when his wife died he wasn’t able to write her obituary but left it to a family member, who he said did the best they could but left out a lot of information he just couldn’t figure out how to include at the time.
“I wanted to thank my wife for putting up with me for 18 years while I was in the Navy and traveling,” Wightman said. Barbara O’Shea said she is still in the process of editing her obituary, and that having this additional class will help.
“My children don’t really know much about the later years of my life,” O’Shea said about the reason she came to the class.
O’Shea said she was surprised to see a Wall Street Journal reporter sitting in on the class. “It puts a spotlight on this little Council on Aging,” O’Shea said.
Vartabedian said he hopes others will be inspired and influenced to write their own obituaries and that the idea will catch on in other communities. In talking about the current heroin epidemic that has the region in its grip, Vartabedian said the burden of writing obituaries for young people who are dying every day from heroin overdoses often lands on the parents.
“Don’t short-change that child,” he said. “As tragic as it may be, they deserve as much of a nice obituary as everyone else.”
He lightened the mood by talking about a recent trend of including political commentary in obituaries. Quoting from an Associated Press story, Vartabedian talked about an Alabama woman who asked that “In lieu of flowers, do not vote for Donald Trump.”
“A Stoughton male said he wished Donald Trump were president, and not to vote for Hilary Clinton, while a Virginia woman facing the choice between Trump and Hilary chose death instead,” he said.
On a more serious note, which Vartabedian found interesting, DeVeaux noted that she was predeceased by two sons, Michael W. and Marque E. DeVeaux, “of heaven.”
“I tell people that my two sons are with their grandparents, who loved them dearly,” she said.
Green-Byrd included a sentiment in her obituary that warmed the hearts of everyone in attendance.
“If you wish to remember me, do a kind deed, show love, give a smile or words of encouragement to someone who needs it. If you do what I ask, I will live forever in your heart.”